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Current News & Issues: Wilderness


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The following article appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express for July 26, 2006. View the original article online at


Idaho wilderness bill clears House
CIEDRA first wilderness legislation with legs since 1980

By Greg Stahl, Express Staff Writer

The U.S. House of Representatives on Monday passed by voice vote legislation that would protect the Boulder and White Cloud mountains as wilderness. The high peaks of the White Clouds, pictured, are renowned for their scenic and wild character. Express file photo.

For the first time since 1980, Idaho wilderness legislation has got real momentum inside the Beltway.

On Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by voice vote, the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, a bill that attempts to stimulate the economy of Custer County, appease off- road vehicle users and simultaneously designate 319,900 acres of wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges.

The House vote followed a half-hour debate in which Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said the bill was complex and controversial and should not have passed the House Resources Committee without more debate.

"If we don't even know how many acres of public land it will give away, it needs further investigation," Maloney said, adding that the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is "among the most beautiful sites" in the country.

Maloney called Simpson's proposed giveaway of more than 5,000 acres of public land a "dangerous precedent."

Despite Democratic objections, Simpson got the two-thirds vote necessary for passage under suspension, which meant a bypass of the Committee on Rules.

And, as in the House Resources Committee, CIEDRA was heard along with a California wilderness bill, called the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act, which passed immediately after.

The California bill, which already passed the Senate, was six years in the making and is championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. The bill would add wilderness protection to more than 275,000 acres of federal land along the Northern California coast. Like Simpson's bill, it contains compromise. It proposes a 75,000-acre off-road vehicle area in Mendocino County.

Critics charge that the Idaho and California bills were linked. Simpson's chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, said they "leveraged each other."

"They had a symbiotic relationship," he said. "There were provisions in each bill that concerned a different set of people. Essentially there were a lot of politics involved."

Simpson defended his work on the bill, citing compromise as paramount to success.

"There are provisions in this bill that, personally, I am not in favor of," he said on the House floor. "There are people on both sides of this issue who don't like this. So what we're trying to do is reach that balance.

"Idahoans know that the Boulder-White Clouds are some of the most beautiful mountains in the United States. They also know they have been the subject of some of the most contentious wilderness debates of our times."

Indeed, Idaho has been fighting about the Boulder-White Clouds since the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area was created in 1972. When that happened, the Boulder and White Cloud mountains became the only congressionally mandated wilderness study area in the state. There were unsuccessful attempts to designate wilderness in the ranges in both 1984 and 1988 as part of statewide bills.

In the eyes of CIEDRA supporters, Simpson's efforts could end a 30- year cycle of failure.

"We welcome this action by the House of Representatives to protect the Boulder-White Clouds," said Craig Gehrke, The Wilderness Society's Idaho director. "This is the most significant step forward to protect Idaho's wilderness since passage of the Central Idaho Wilderness Act in 1980."

Linn Kincannon, central Idaho director of the Idaho the Idaho Conservation League, another CIEDRA proponent, said Tuesday morning, "I'm happy."

"We put an enormous amount of time and effort into seeing a bill that protects real wilderness for the first time in more than a generation," she said. "It's getting very close to the end of the session, and time definitely became an issue. We're pleased that we're going to have the fall to work in the Senate."

As Kincannon pointed out, time is short.

The Senate is in its final weeks before it breaks for August recess. It is scheduled to work during September, and may convene during November and December.

Idaho's Senior Sen. Larry Craig, a Republican, chairs the Senate Energy Committee's Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forest Health, where CIEDRA will begin its Senate journey. Craig plans to hold a September hearing on Simpson's bill, but he has not yet opined on it.

"He's going to help Mike Simpson see what he can get through the Senate," said Craig's spokesman, Dan Whiting. "The minority has a lot of concerns over the bill, and in the Senate it's a lot easier for one person to muck something up."

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has indicated he will support the bill.

"It will be difficult to get through the Senate," Whiting said.What is it?

Congressman Mike Simpson's sweeping legislation, the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, includes a major economic development package for Custer County, Blaine County's northern neighbor, as well as wilderness protection for a significant chunk of the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges. In all, the bill could funnel more than $13 million into rural Idaho and give away more than 5,000 acres of publicly owned land.

The bill would protect 319,900 acres of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains as wilderness, the most restrictive land management designation in Congress' bag of tricks. That's 19,889 acres more than proposed in recent drafts. A $7 million provision providing for federal grazing allotment buyouts in the White Clouds has been pulled out of the bill.

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