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Current News & Issues: Wilderness


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By Dan Popkey.


Wilderness bills change natural, political landscape


October 5, 2005
Idaho Statesman

I hope I’m not jinxing it, but it looks like the 25-year struggle to expand an Idaho icon — our 4 million acres of congressionally designated wilderness — will soon end in success.

A House hearing could come this month on adding 300,000 acres in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains in Central Idaho to the national wilderness system.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, verges on prevailing where two of the giants of Idaho history — former GOP Sen. Jim McClure and former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus — fell short. McClure and Andrus fought a "no new wilderness" sentiment in the 1980s that’s faded as more Idahoans come to see wildlands as a treasure.

Simpson’s triumph could soon be followed by a 510,000-acre wilderness addition in the Owyhee Canyonlands authored by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

Though they’ve taken different paths to consensus, Simpson and Crapo have changed the political landscape by bringing all parties to the field and slogging through their differences. They’ve also benefited from growing popular support for wilderness because it’s key to defining what’s special about Idaho.

"Idaho’s changing," Simpson said, "particularly Idahoans who’ve come in the last 10 years. They come here because of the quality of our environment. Idaho is moving in the direction Colorado did, and I think you’ll just see it get stronger."

That’s borne out by a new poll commissioned by the Idaho Conservation League, a pragmatic environmental group and a key Simpson ally.

The poll was conducted by Moore Information, a GOP firm based in Portland and headed by Bob Moore, who has worked for Simpson, McClure and former Sen. Steve Symms, and is Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter’s pollster in the 2006 governor’s race.

"Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was when we told people that 300,000 acres of public land would be designated wilderness, we found 69 percent support and 24 percent in opposition," said Moore.

The poll of 400 respondents statewide was conducted last month and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

The poll laid out the bill’s components: transfer of 2,000 acres to local government, development of 162 acres in Stanley Basin, grazing buyouts for ranchers, an off-road vehicle route bisecting the wilderness, banning skiing and snowmobiling in mountain goat habitat, and tourism development.

Though details drove down support, the package still was backed by 59 percent of those surveyed, and by 63 percent of Republicans.

"We’re trying to provide proof to the (all-Republican congressional) delegation that this isn’t crazy," said Rick Johnson, ICL’s executive director. "This is good politics."

Simpson is pleased. "People want some of these lands protected, and you can actually resolve issues using cooperation. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation, which has been the problem in the past."

Crapo agrees. "We’ve learned it’s possible to get broad public support by bringing together varying viewpoints and finding the sweet spot in which consensus can be reached."

Simpson said he’s "pretty sure" he’ll get a hearing on H.R. 3603 by the end of October. He’s playing golf this weekend at a fund-raiser for Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif. If he lets Pombo win, he’ll close the deal.

Both Simpson and Crapo waved off a recent suggestion from Pombo that the bills be combined. Simpson and Crapo want them separate, and predict their bills will be law by the end of 2006.

Crapo hoped his bill would be drafted by September. He said Tuesday there’s a final detail to be resolved: how to compensate ranchers for giving up grazing rights. "It could come together any day, literally," Crapo said.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, is gatekeeper for both proposals in the Senate as chairman of the relevant subcommittee. Craig is withholding judgment but has the power to kill or coddle either bill.
"Larry’s being helpful," said Simpson, while acknowledging Craig is the last best hope of opponents. "They figure I’m a lost cause, and they’re flooding Larry with mail."

Otter’s backing is less vital, and he’s mum. As a candidate for governor, he’ll look carefully at results from his pollster. Moore wouldn’t comment on any conversations with his client.

"The poll numbers are very good," said Simpson. "I think Butch will consider that. But Butch also will consider philosophically whether he thinks it’s a good thing."

Simpson’s bill and Crapo’s to follow surely qualify as a good thing for most Idahoans. Solutions from the majority party, built by painful consensus, hard work and leadership, make history.

Here’s to hoping nothing more gets in the way this time around.

Dan Popkey’s column runs Sunday and Wednesday. Contact him at 377-6438 or



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