By Sarah Michael, Blaine Co. Commissioner.
Protecting wilderness and communities
November 2, 2005
By Sarah Michael, Blaine Co. Commissioner
As chair of the Blaine County Commission, I was in Washington, D.C., last
week to talk to members of Congress about Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds
Mountains. I attended the hearing on the "Central Idaho Economic
Development and Recreation Act," Congressman Mike Simpson's comprehensive
proposal to address the future of this special part of our state.
Some critics of the Simpson legislation suggest that Idaho wilderness
areas used to be protected through "pure wilderness bills", not
complicated by having to address surrounding lands and community needs.
Wrong. In places like Idaho's River of No Return and Hells Canyon, our
congressional delegation took care to fit the wilderness into the context
of other legitimate uses of surrounding lands, including by leaving out
areas some strongly advocated for wilderness preservation.
Wilderness is not only about land and wildlife, but also about
people—those who, hunt, hike and fish, but also those who live in nearby
rural communities. The Simpson bill has a good chance of succeeding
because it will protect wilderness within a framework that addresses
recreation issues and community needs. While my fellow Blaine County
commissioners and I have expressed concern about some details, I
appreciate Congressman Simpson's efforts to work with all stakeholders and
find a balance.
We wilderness advocates must not forget that local opinion plays a crucial
role in whether wilderness will be designated. For lack of broad local
support, our dream of protecting wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds
has stalled for three decades while, year after year, the wilderness has
continued to be nibbled away.
Many of us have a vision of a perfect wilderness area. But everyone's
vision is different. After talking with members of Congress of both
parties, I was consistently told that no bill will pass dealing with an
Idaho public land issue unless it is championed by our own congressional
delegation. That means for such a proposal to gain any traction in
Congress, it already must have been judged to make sense at the local and
state level. Many diverse local users groups and interests must be
heard—collaboration is the building block for action.
With that goal in mind, Congressman Simpson has spent years meeting with
diverse interests, testing and adjusting, seeking a workable middle
ground. I was pleased to find that members of our Idaho delegation and the
congressional committee showed real respect for his tireless work. That's
what an effective process is all about.
I was also pleased to learn that protecting wilderness has not become a
partisan issue as so many other national issues seem to be. Indeed, just
this week President Bush has signed a law protecting a New Mexico
wilderness area—a law strongly supported by that state's congressional
delegation across party lines.
Most of the Boulder-White Clouds area is in Custer County, just north of
us. Custer is a Republican county. Blaine County is a Democratic county.
While there remain some details to be discussed, both counties support
Mike Simpson's continuing efforts. The legislation offers us realistic
solutions. Wilderness is one. Modest provisions to enhance the economic
future for local communities are another. And recreational opportunities
for diverse groups are maintained. It is the three in combination that
gives promise of a package that Congress can actually pass.
The result is broad support for the common ground Simpson has staked
out—and I saw firsthand what a big impression that made on members of
Congress of both political parties.
At long last we may be on the threshold of fulfilling a generations-old
dream for the Boulder-White Clouds—a dream for that goes deep among
Idahoans, bridging the usual chasms of partisan and urban/rural debates.