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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Opinion Column

Time to resolve
Clouds debate

Guest opinion by Rep. Mike Simpson

Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican, is the representative for the Idaho Second Congressional District, which includes eastern and central Idaho.

For a variety of reasons, I believe, the time is right to resolve many of the long standing and thorny land use, recreation, and wilderness designation issues in Central Idaho. It is time to put these old debates to rest and move ahead to a stronger, more secure economy in the rugged, beautiful and productive heart of Idaho.

Since my election to Congress, one of my highest priorities has been to resolve wilderness conflict issues in central Idaho. I realize the answer is not to create wilderness and walk away. That would only magnify the land use conflicts we already face. The solution is to first create an integrated economic development and recreation plan that addresses the needs of the people who live and recreate in central Idaho. If we do this, then maybe legislation could move forward that would include wilderness as a component.

This is not the first attempt to solve the Boulder-White Clouds management issue. Senator James McClure and Governor Cecil Andrus worked together to find a wilderness compromise. Representative Richard Stallings and then Representative Mike Crapo each made their own attempts. Those efforts faced a political climate that made it difficult to compromise. Things are different now. Today, lawsuits, national monument threats, ESA protections for fish and wildlife, as well as a myriad of other restrictions and conflicts have forced all parties to reconsider the need for a compromise in the Boulder-White Clouds. We are now presented with a unique opportunity in which we can reach out to parties and find a long-term solution. We have a rare opportunity to control our own destiny by crafting legislation that fits the needs of central Idaho.

During the past year, my staff and I have met with some of the groups that would be impacted by possible legislation. These meetings included Custer County's past and present commissioners, ranchers, snowmobilers, off road vehicle users, outfitters, conservationists and others. What I have heard has made me believe we can find a positive, reasonable outcome for the management of the Boulder-White Clouds that benefits all users. It has also made me realize there are four main components that would be addressed in any legislative package.

The first component is the need for economic development in Custer County. Custer County is larger than three of the Eastís smaller states yet has little more than 4,000 people. Unfortunately, it is burdened with a high proportion of public lands with over 95 percent of the county's 3.4 million acres administered by federal agencies. One only needs to speak to the County Commissioners to realize that this grossly disproportionate public ownership causes a severe strain on their resources. Simply put, the county's tax base, or more specifically the lack thereof, is inadequate to support the services required for such an expansive county. I think it's important to note, the county's citizens and taxpayers are supporting those who recreate in the area by maintaining roads, law enforcement, search and rescue, medical aid and other services, infrastructure and facilities.

The second component is ensuring our ranchers, outfitters, miners and others who are permitted to operate on Forest Service and BLM lands in the Boulder-White Clouds can continue to maintain their livelihoods. They need an opportunity to remain as viable and sustainable operations so that they and their children can continue their traditional way of life. The third component consists of recreation and motorized users who need certainty so that they are guaranteed continued access to recreation areas without finding their roads or trailheads have been shut down overnight. The last component would release wilderness study areas deemed non-suitable for wilderness and designate wilderness taking into account the recommendations of the Forest Service and BLM. In addition, in order to protect the forests, communities and homes in the Stanley area, we need to look at the emergency removal of bug killed "red trees" before the forests are reduced to ashes.

While these four components will be central to resolving the Boulder-White Clouds issue, there are many other issues and groups that will play a part in the ultimate resolution. In the coming months I will be reaching out to these groups and the public to discuss how possible legislation may affect them. Finally, it is important to remember that resolving old battles and moving to a strong future requires the active and constructive participation of the interested parties. The old approach of sacrificing the needs of one group to benefit another just won't work. It never did. What we must have is give-and-take, a willingness to find a reasonable compromise that addresses all those who care about the Boulder-White Clouds and depend on the area for their livelihoods and enjoyment. In the end, we need support from the people of Custer County, their elected representatives and the users of the area. With that support, I am confident that we can strengthen the local economy, preserve great recreational opportunities, protect a treasured area of Idaho and bring an end to the decades old debate.


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