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Current News & Issues: Wilderness


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The following article appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express, Ketchum, Idaho, May 25, 2005. View the original article online at 

Simpson stumps for wilderness bill. “It's time to get to yes”

Idaho Mountain Express Staff Writer


Congressman Mike Simpson speaks Sunday with Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson and ICL Central Idaho Director Linn Kincannon. Simpson submitted his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act to Congress on Thursday, May 19. On Sunday, he addressed a gathering of conservationists at Redfish Lake Lodge. Express photo by Greg Stahl

Congressman Mike Simpson envisions a long, difficult road leading to passage of his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, but he doesn't sound like a man willing to back down.

"We've been saying no to things for so long, and nothing's been done," he said. "It's time to get to yes."

Simpson spoke on Sunday at an annual meeting of Idaho's conservation community. The event, called Wild Idaho, is sponsored by the Idaho Conservation League and is held each year at Redfish Lake Lodge.

The congressman submitted his wilderness and economic development bill to his congressional colleagues on Thursday, May 19, signifying the end of the beginning of the lawmaking process. He has been working on the bill for six years, and he hopes the Congress will finish considering the measure in the next calendar year.

In short, the bill would designate 300,011 acres of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains as wilderness. It would funnel $20 million in federal appropriations into Central Idaho. It would give federal land away to Custer and Blaine counties, and to the cities of Stanley, Challis and Mackay. It would transfer state land to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. It would create a motorized recreation park in Boise.

The bill includes something for just about everybody, and it contains something for just about everybody not to like.

In his remarks, Simpson defended the bill and repeated a mantra he has been uttering for nearly a year: The legislation epitomizes compromise. But altogether, Simpson used the stage Sunday morning to make a sales pitch to some of Idaho's leading environmentalists.

"You people have come a lot in one direction," Simpson said. "But think about how far (people on the other side of the fence) have come. This is not the bill any of us would write, but hopefully it's a bill that could pass and can help everybody out."

He readily acknowledged an uphill battle in the congressional trenches. The first tall order will be to gain approval from Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., who chairs the House Resources Committee.

"It's going to be tough, there's no doubt about it," Simpson said. "There's going to be opposition, and there's going to be opposition from Idaho. There's still a lot of work to do, but it's worth doing."

The Idaho Conservation League's executive director, Rick Johnson, also urged the conservation community to give Simpson's bill a long, hard look and some serious consideration. He appeared excited about the pending, inside-the-beltway talks.

"It's not a non-starter," Johnson said. "We are, for the first time since Frank Church was a senator, going to have a serious discussion on wilderness in this state."

Church sponsored legislation that created Central Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, the largest protected wilderness in the contiguous United States.

And whether the citizens of Idaho agree with Simpson's proposal or not, the congressman deserves a pat on the back for his efforts, Johnson said. He has brought Idahoans of diverse stripes to the bargaining table, and a piece of potential legislation resulted.

"Think about the place. Think about the future. We owe this guy a lot of credit for what he's doing," Johnson said. "He's getting a lot of heat from the other side. He's getting a lot of heat from us. He needs to get credit."

And Simpson is, indeed, getting heat. Wilderness advocates and motorized-recreation advocates alike are picking the bill apart.

A coalition of snowmobilers has waged an organized campaign against the bill. A group of Stanley-area residents is opposing federal land gifts to the city in the vicinity of Valley Creek. Advocates for more widespread wilderness protection have said Simpson's bill concedes too much in the form of federal land grants and motorized access and doesn't give enough in the form of wilderness.

For Johnson and other environmentalists, it took some time to see the big picture. Johnson said he has been working on protections for the Boulder and White Cloud mountains for 20 years, but Simpson taught him the most important lesson.

"We, together, have gotten to this place, and that is about people," Johnson said. "A lot of us got into this because of the land, because of the wildlife, but it's actually about people. Mike Simpson taught that to me."

And Simpson also stressed the importance of the significant wilderness protections in the bill. It is a selfless effort, he said.

"I'm really not doing this for you or for me. I'll be long dead and gone—so will you—'til the real benefits of this will be seen," he said. "We're really doing this for future generations. We want to be able to look back and be able to say that when it was our time, that we decided to do something."

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