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Current News & Issues: Wilderness


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Please note: our editor is looking for the source of this article (below) which appeared across the newswires on October 28, 2005. If you can identify the source please contact BWCC.


What a Difference A Celebrity Makes, Idaho Wilderness Bill Grabs Attention in D.C.


Simpson's bill gets hashed out in a House Resources subcommittee.


October 28, 2005
By Eric V. Segalstad

WASHINGTON — With Supreme Court nominees bowing out and White House aides being indicted, Rep. Mike Simpson’s, R-ID, wilderness bill for the Boulder and White Cloud mountains in central Idaho doesn't seem like it would be an automatic headline-grabber in Washington D.C.

But add an emotional debate, fiery characters on all sides and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (especially one as popular with the Congress demographic as Carole King is) and it starts turning heads and showing up in the national press.

Simpson’s Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CEIDRA), which may designate 300,011 acres of wilderness, is widely known as a controversial, or quid pro quo, wilderness bill due to its compromising nature. But politics is a game of balancing constituents, and Simpson’s six-year-long efforts to reach acceptable consensus among the region’s ranchers, county commissioners, environmentalists and off road vehicle users is undeniably a display of the Congressman’s political shrewdness. The cost? Federal land give-aways to cash-strapped Custer County, soft-release of Wilderness Study Areas, a motorized corridor through the wilderness and a voluntary buy-out program of grazing rights from local ranchers.

Before the bill’s hearing Thursday in a House Resources subcommittee, lobbyists, witnesses, Idaho residents and wilderness advocates commingled a polished hallway on Capitol Hill anxiously waiting for a seat.

The ranking Democrat on the Resources Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall from West Virginia, stopped by to express his concerns and left immediately thereafter:

“I have spent more than half my life as a member of the Resources Committee. In that time I have supported numerous wilderness designations. In fact, I cannot recall ever opposing a wilderness bill. Yet, today, I find myself in a different situation. While I am normally excited, in fact, enthused whenever a Republican introduces a wilderness bill, H.R. 3603 falls far short of what I see as an acceptable standard for such an exceptional area,” Rahall read from a prepared statement.

During the hearing Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., countered his comments.

Udall said that Simpson was clearly “diligent with everybody in trying to find compromises that work, and they don't please everybody.” He moved on giving a “strong recommendation” for the bill and considered it a “work in progress” that the committee should consider “very seriously.”

Miller characterized Simpson’s effort as “real, genuine and serious” and that it deserved to be “paid attention to no matter what side of the issue you're on.” Miller also acknowledged that wilderness discussions are more convoluted today than in the past due to the rise of new interest groups such as motorized recreationists.

"I'd just like to congratulate Mike Simpson. I believe he is following in a fine tradition in Idaho," he said, alluding to the wilderness legacies of Andrus, McClure and Church.

During recess Craig J. Gehrke of the Wilderness Society said, “we have to have Miller’s support for this to make some headway.”

Deputy Chief of the National Forest System, Joel Holtrop, and Assistant Director of Renewable Resources and Planning for the Bureau of Land Management, Ed Shepard, testified that both agencies supported the bill with reservations. Land transfers without compensation to tax payers was the single most problematic aspect of the bill for both, but that they “would like to work with the committee and bill sponsor.”

The testimonies offered no surprises for those who have been following the bill.

Dan Hammerbeck, President of the Salmon River Snowmobile Club, was against on the grounds that wilderness designation would reduce snowmobile access to parts of the high country and further stifle the economy of Custer County.

Rancher and County Commissioner Cliff Hansen said his district can “only provide minimal services” since 95 percent of the county is federal land, leaving only 5 percent as a taxable. Custer is larger than three states, yet home to little more than 4,000 people according to the 2000 census. “This bill is the best thing for Custer County,” he said.

Mike Webster, president-elect of the Idaho Cattle Association, testified against the bill, as did F. Carl Pence, a retired Forest Service ranger in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and a registered Republican.

Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, emphasized that the majority of Idahoans support Simpson’s bill and now is the best chance in 25 years to designate wilderness in Idaho. In addition, he used a chart on an easel to show the explosive growth in off-road vehicles and ATVs in Idaho.

Simpson, always relaxed and well-spoken, ended by thanking the witnesses and stated that protection would allow future generations to decide what to do because once wilderness is gone it’s gone. “We will be dead and gone before the impacts [of wilderness designation] will be measured by future generations.”

It’s interesting to note that Rahall ended his statement by quoting from a song by Custer County resident and singer Carole King—an outspoken opponent and witness at the hearing.

King is a long-time wilderness activist, but she has remained on the sidelines for most of this bill’s negotiating process—perhaps because of her unwillingness to compromise. Nevertheless, Simpson, who counts her as a friend, invited her.

Last week, after she was named a witness, AP picked up the Boulder-White Clouds story and papers as far away as the Sacramento Bee ran it.

King’s testimony was marked by rhetoric and a plea to support The Rockies Prosperity Act, which she has ardently advocated for the past 15 years. The Act aims to protect 1,102,535 acres in Washington, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. She likes to point out that it has 185 cosponsors, while CEIDRA only has one: Rep. Simpson.

The Rockies Prosperity Act would be a dream-come-true for environmentalists because of its sheer size and lack of compromises, but with a 25-year history of failed efforts to pass statewide wilderness bills, how likely is it to pass a regional one? An insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity speculated that many Congressmen have put their name on the list because “it’s difficult to say no to a rock star when she comes knocking on your door.” Co-sponsorship doesn’t necessary translate to a vote on the floor.

King’s testimony demonstrated her all-or-nothing philosophy, which might make Simpson’s bill look moderate to the largely anti-wilderness House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.).

“If you’re waiting for the perfect bill it will not come because it doesn’t exist,” Simpson warned the panel of witnesses and the unusually crowded hearing room.

The subcommittee is likely to mark-up the bill within the next few weeks and the outcome will determine if CEIDRA can move to the House floor.

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