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Current News & Issues: Wilderness


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Our View: Congress should consider wilderness measures separately.

October 5, 2005
Idaho Statesman, Boise Idaho

Idahoans have spent several years in delicate negotiations working through decades of tensions to craft two wilderness bills.

Central Idaho's Boulder-White Cloud mountains and Southwest Idaho's Owyhee Canyonlands are separate, special places. Juggling wilderness designation, off-road recreation and ranching in both areas are separate decisions, too. They ought to be considered independently.

California Republican Rep. Richard Pombo who, as House Resources Committee chairman, has a lot of influence over Idaho wilderness bills last week said he would prefer combining the Boulder-White Clouds and the Owyhees into one bill.

Let's keep this comment in context, as the stated blue-sky preference of one key congressman, not a my-way-or-the-highway dictate. Still, keeping the issues separate makes more sense for three reasons.

The first reason is logistics. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, introduced his Boulder-White Clouds bill in May. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, the architect of the Owyhees negotiations, has not yet introduced a bill. "We're continuing to work on it, and at this point, I don't have a timeline," Crapo spokeswoman Susan Wheeler said Tuesday.

The issues are at two distinct stages in the process. Crapo is trying to negotiate details before introducing a bill. Idahoans are publicly debating the Simpson bill, as illustrated by today's Reader's View from Bethine Church, the wife of the late U.S. Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho. There's no reason to speed up the process on the Owyhees bill, or sidetrack the Boulder-White Clouds debate, simply to combine the two issues.

The second reason is politics: Idaho's wild lands are most likely to be preserved one by one. Combining issues only increases the odds of losing a fragile coalition.

Because their Boulder-White Clouds and Owyhees proposals concentrate on specific areas, Simpson and Crapo probably stand a better chance of finding and preserving a consensus. Both decisions are plenty big enough on their own: the Boulder-White Clouds bill would establish 300,011 acres of wilderness, the Owyhees bill 517,194.

There are many reasons Idaho hasn't passed a wilderness bill in a quarter century. One is overreach. The idea of a big, ambitious wilderness bill has been floated to no avail. Let's give another approach a chance.

The third and most important reason is the process.

Negotiators have been seeking local outcomes, settling long-standing land management issues in specific areas. The consensus-building approach, the constituencies and the competing interests may all be parallel. The processes are separate. The results of these talks should be considered on their own merits.

To his credit, Pombo is keeping an open mind. Both the Owyhees and the Boulder-White Clouds are on the chairman's radar, and Pombo said he could support a Boulder-White Clouds bill if Simpson can demonstrate backing for the bill. "Clearly the two Mikes have been talking to him," said John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League.

The two Mikes deserve the chance to present their two bills separately.

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