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Current News & Issues: Wilderness


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Letter against wilderness by John Rember.


CIEDRA may bring unintended consequences


September 22, 2005

Challis Messenger
Guest Opinion

I'm a great believer in the Law of Unintended Consequences. Loosely defined, that's when the results you don't think of when you do something end up being a lot more important than the results you do think of.

For example, Bill Clinton didn't really think about all the consequences of letting Monica Lewinsky into the Oval Office after hours for a tutorial on foreign policy. If he had thought about it, he might have invited George Bush in for the same tutorial, the conversation would have stayed safely on the impracticality of Iraq having deliverable weapons of mass destruction, and a couple of thousand more young Americans would be alive today. Don't you think?

If Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld hadn't been so contemptuous of Colin Powell's wisdom about military unintended consequences, we wouldn't be paying $3+ for gasoline. We'd still have Saddam Hussein and a corrupt oil-for-food program and not quite so many grateful Iraqis and a lot more stable Afghanistan. A bunch of folks who depend on tourists being able to buy enough gas to drive cars, SUVs and motor-homes across the vast distances of the American West could look forward to making a better living for the next ten years or so.

Even closer to home, and just as subject to unintended consequences, is Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act [CIEDRA]. The act is an attempt to bring prosperity to Custer and Blaine counties by giving federal land to the counties and some of their municipalities, establishing a White Cloud/Boulder Mountains Wilderness and setting up improved routes for ORVs and motorcycles and mountain bikes. There are going to be some serious unintended consequences of CIEDRA, which is being touted as a model of compromise for land use in the West. Here are some things that Congressman Simpson a man known for his good intentions and the rest of us might want to think about before proceeding with CIEDRA:

  • Wilderness designation for the White Clouds and the Boulder ranges would seem to be a no-brainer, as the area is currently de facto wilderness due to its rugged terrain, surrounding roadless buffer zones, and distance from any large population center. But CIEDRA would attract heavy use by designating areas for specific users. Backpackers would be directed into a wilderness with improved trailheads and signage, mountain bikers would be given specific trails, and the cyclists and ORVers would be directed onto newly designed routes that would put many more of them close to wild areas or in a corridor between wild areas.

    Right now the backpackers avoid the motorcyclists, the motorcyclists never get off their bikes, and the mountain bikers don't leave the trails either. Get fifty yards off a trail in the White Clouds and you're alone. Get fifty yards off a trail in the Sawtooths, which are a designated wilderness, and you'll run into people. Wilderness designation attracts lots of people, and the crowd degrades the wilderness. Compare visitor impact at off-trail sites in the Sawtooths against impact in similar sites in the White Clouds, and you'll see that wilderness designation can actually harm what is wild.

  • Wilderness designation also results in some of the most highly regulated real estate in the country. If the resulting gridwork of enforcement organizations, laws, rules, expectations and cultural connections to the surrounding area were to be made visible, it would look like an organization chart for a Fortune 500 company. Wilderness designation bureaucratizes land and creates an entity that is wholly artificial and heavily policed, even as it looks natural and free.

  • A sacrificial doughnut surrounds wilderness areas, be-cause wilderness as a concept has commercial value. Realtors, developers, trophy-home builders, hobby ranchers, and idle young folks without visible means of support hang out in the towns that have wilderness nearby. You can see a strange natural progression around the American West as people come for the solitude and the romance and wildness and then ruin what they came for by re-creating the social and physical infrastructure they've just escaped. The upper Wood River Valley is a good example of a place where no one, except the extremely wealthy, can afford to feel comfortable anymore. It's hard for me to believe that Custer County would want its cowboys on their ranches to become houseboys in 10,000 square-foot mansions, even if they did pay more taxes. Some of the fourth generation Custer County folks should talk to some of the fourth generation Blaine County folks about keeping the family homesteads intact, if they can find any of them still around.

  • The recreational gasoline industry is going to suffer if little old ladies are freezing to death in their houses because they can't afford heating oil this winter. It may be an appropriate time to look at our priorities in this War on Terrorism we're in, and look to our self-disciplined national behavior during WWII, when it seemed we really wanted to win. It might not be the most tasteful time to be building ORV tracks and motorcycle circuits. NASCAR isn't such a good idea in this context, come to think of it. Neither are trophy houses.

  • Giving federal land to Custer and Blaine counties was a way for Simpson to get some of the anti-wilderness locals on board. The plan is for that land-in Stanley, anyway-to be sold as luxury homesites. The resulting tax base will bring solvency to Custer County and city governments and school districts.

    I have two words for Congressman Simpson: Teapot Dome. If the congressman wants to forever tie his name to corruption associated with the disposal of federal assets, he should keep this aspect of CIEDRA intact. The sudden conversion of federal land into luxury real estate is going to be a lot like a loss of virginity: it's hard to keep that door closed once it's been opened.

    Hundreds of little starve-acre counties and municipalities are scattered across the American West, and most of them are loyally conservative and Republican. Conservative or not, they're going to want their share when CIEDRA's charity gets distributed. What they're not going to want is chunks of Nevada salt flats. They're going to want their own private Idaho, too.

    Watching the scramble for land will not be for the squeamish. Deciding on what places to give away, lot boundaries, auction participants, asking prices, and whether or not anyone will get land in return for selfless community service will be a nasty business. Neighbors who bought property thinking that views and privacy were protected by bordering national forest will want a say in who their new neighbors are. People with lots of money will hire lawyers to make sure that the highest bidder gets the land, and that subsidized housing not be built lest it depress their property values. Once again, real estate history in Blaine County serves as a guide for what to expect in Stanley and Challis.

  • One group of people who will be watching the whole process of federal land transfer is Idaho's Native Americans. Up to now, the land that the tribes lost in a series of dubious legal transactions has not been given a dollar value. But CIEDRA will give a high and very public value to federal land it will commodify the resource base, in the language of economics, and then the tribes will have a dollar figure to give to their lawyers when the courts begin to scrutinize some of the treaties of the nineteenth century. Up to now, the ambiguous nature of federal land meant that it could nebulously belong to all of us. Put a dollar amount on it and you'll begin to see people come off the reservations who have legitimate claims to owning it. That's when the true expense of CIEDRA will become apparent.

I'm sure there are other unintended consequences that I haven't thought of, but these should be enough to question the wisdom of going ahead with the act. Right now Challis and nearby towns are booming because of a spike in molybdenum prices, so the necessity for an economic development act isn't as dire as it was before China started producing so much steel. The mines commodify the resource base, too, but they don't commodify so much of it.

And if there's a worldwide depression and the Thompson Creek Mine closes again, I have this advice for Congressman Simpson: forget CIEDRA and just give every man, woman, and child in Custer County a check for a $100,000. Financially, culturally, and spiritually, it will be cheaper.


John Rember, a writer and professor, lives near Stanley.

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