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Ketchum, Idaho 83340

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Current News & Issues: Wilderness


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The following article appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express, Ketchum, Idaho, April 6, 2005.

BWC wilderness bill set to go to Congress
'Fierce opposition' anticipated

Idaho Mountain Express Staff Writer

Before the month of April is through, discussion on whether or not to protect a slice of Central Idaho as wilderness will make its way into the historic chambers of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

What happens to Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act after that will be up to lobbyists and the country's massive lawmaking machine.

Through his bill, Simpson hopes to resolve long-running disputes about how to manage the Boulder and White Cloud mountains. Located in Custer and Blaine counties, the mountain ranges include the largest unprotected road-free contiguous chunk of land in the Lower 48 States. But several economically depressed communities, primarily in Custer County, also surround the two mountain ranges, and Simpson is proposing to give the communities an economic shot in the arm, as well as designate a wilderness area in Idaho for the first time in 30 years.

"If (the bill) doesn't go now, it won't go in the next four years," said Simpson's chief of staff, Lindsay Slater. Also, local support could help the legislation overcome any significant political obstacles that come from inside the Beltway.

"We're turning to the locals to get their winds in this bill," Slater said. "What we're doing, we're ensuring this works for the community. Not everybody's going to get what they want in this bill, but we have to be sure everybody's going to get what they need."

Slater said the bill is not going to be "substantially different" from what it looked like in October when Simpson introduced the bill during the 108th session of Congress, Slater said. Because bills are not carried over from one session of Congress to the next, Simpson must re-submit the proposed legislation.

"Once it's introduced, that's when we'll say, 'This is it,'" Slater said. "That's when we expect people to draw lines in the sand. We're getting some support, but wait for two months and see how the fireworks go. I think it's going to be crazy."

One of the reasons Simpson waited to definitively submit the bill was to get as much feedback as possible from as many different stakeholders as possible. In that sense, the proposed legislation is a true compromise.

Nonetheless, Slater said he anticipates strong opposition.

And based on congressional tack records, one of the key obstacles could come from inside Congress almost immediately after the bill is submitted.

The bill will begin its journey through the lawmaking process in the House Resources Committee, now chaired by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., who on Sept. 22 killed legislation that would have created the new 106,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness Area near Seattle.

Proponents have said backing from a prominent Idaho Republican like Sen. Larry Craig would help make the bill saleable to the Republican-controlled Congress. So far, however, Craig has stayed out of the discussion. On more than one occasion, he said he admires Simpson's efforts and doesn't want to interfere with the process.

In all, the bill could funnel as much as $18.25 million into rural Idaho in the form of grants, a grazing permit buyout program and funds to purchase conservation easements. Another estimated $9 million to $11 million in public lands, more than 2,000 acres, could be traded into private hands.

The bill would protect 294,100 acres of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains as wilderness, the most restrictive land management designation in Congress' bag of tricks.

There's probably something in the bill for most people to like. There's also probably something in the bill for most people to dislike.

"It's been an interesting challenge finding a compromise that will promote economic development in Custer County, assist ranchers who have been severely impacted by the environmental lawsuits, protect and enhance historic motorized recreation opportunities and create a wilderness," Simpson said in a prepared statement that was released in October.

Simpson first announced he would pursue wilderness and economic development legislation for Central Idaho in May 1999 at a meeting of conservation groups at Redfish Lake Lodge in the shadow of the Sawtooth Wilderness Area. He will speak at the annual meeting, called Wild Idaho!, again this spring to give an update about the bill.

Since the 1999 announcement, and particularly in the last two years, he worked to build consensus among the various stakeholders in the region.

"After listening to the needs of our traditional user groups that will be impacted—the county, the ranchers and outfitters, the motorized recreation community and the conservationists—I am pleased that we have taken a few discussion concepts, created a framework, held public meetings which resulted in a draft bill, and finally the legislation I have introduced today," Simpson said. "Throughout the process, my focus has been on protecting historic uses."

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