The following article appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express for
October 13, 2004. View the original article online at
Simpson submits BWC wilderness bills
By Greg Stahl, Express Staff Writer
Some of the most significant legislation to come out
of Central Idaho in decades was submitted to Congress on Friday when
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, dropped his Central Idaho Economic
Development and Recreation Act in the laps of his congressional
The bill includes a major economic development package for Custer
County, Blaine County’s northeastern neighbor, as well as wilderness
protection for a significant chunk of the Boulder and White Cloud
The bill would 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
worth of public lands, more than 2,000 acres, could be traded into
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.
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
Since then, and particularly in the past two years, he has 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,” he said Friday. “Throughout the process, my
focus has been on protecting historic uses while creating a win for all
users, and I think this comes as close as we can get to doing that.”
Conservationists have sought wilderness protection for the Boulder and
White Cloud mountains—the largest unprotected contiguous road-free land
mass in the lower 48 states—for more than 20 years. But the bill
contains compromises that have concerned the conservation community
since Simpson first made them public at the beginning of the summer.
Compromises from the conservation community include federal land grants
to Custer and Blaine counties, as well as the city of Stanley. They also
include lands and trails that would be set aside for motorized
The predominant compromise from conservative rural Idahoans includes the
designation of any wilderness at all.
“In the long history of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, this is a
significant step forward,” said Rick Johnson, executive director of the
Idaho Conservation League. “We thank Rep. Simpson for his leadership and
look forward to continued work to address a few thorny issues in the
measure before final passage in the coming Congress.”
But passage—or even consideration—may not be imminent.
Congress recessed on Friday and will probably only reconvene in November
to finish a few spending bills. In all likelihood, the bill will be
resubmitted when the 109th Congress convenes in January. Additionally, a
few crucial details—specific public lands that would be granted to
Blaine County, as well as to Custer County near Challis and Clayton—have
not yet been added to the bill.
“The congressman has made a commitment to introduce legislation this
year, and this is the closest to what he thinks is a win-win for all
parties,” said Lindsay Slater, Simpson’s chief of staff.
When it is finally considered, the bill will begin its journey through
the lawmaking process in the House Resources Committee, now chaired by
Richard Pombo, R-Calif, who on Sept. 22 killed legislation that would
have created a 106,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness Area near Seattle.
But Slater declined to predict how Simpson’s Central Idaho Economic
Development and Recreation Act would fare and also said he does not know
if President George W. Bush would sign the bill.
On the ground, stakeholders expressed cup-half-full opinions, while
adding a few grains of salt.
"Congressman Simpson's legislation presents a very real opportunity, the
first in many, many years, to protect the Boulder-White Clouds as
wilderness,” said Craig Gherke, Idaho director of The Wilderness
Society. “We look forward to working through the legislative process to
address several troublesome issues in the months ahead. While the bill
admirably protects key wildlife habitat on the east side, we would like
to see further protections for popular recreation sites in the high
peaks area to the west.”
Others voiced overall opposition to the measure.
“If there’s one glaring failure of the bill, it’s the failure to deal
with wildlife,” said John Osborn, conservation chair for the Northern
Rockies chapter of the Sierra Club. “This is a bill for motorized
exploitation of the Boulder-White Clouds. It’s not a bill to protect
wildlife. When you open the Boulder White Clouds to motorized
recreation, it’s inevitable that you’re going to threaten those wildlife
Slater, who did a lot of the heavy lifting in drafting the bill, makes
no bones about the bill’s intent.
“This is an economic development bill,” he said. “It provides
sustainability and development for the future. We’re protecting
motorized recreation, ranching and other users to make sure they’re
there in the future. We want certainty.”
But the conservation component of the legislation is nothing to scoff
at, Slater said.
“At the same time, we’re creating wilderness areas in places we’ve
deemed are deserving for future generations,” he added. “The one thing
Mike Simpson always keeps in the back of his mind as he goes through
this process is future generations. He’s thinking about those who want
to use it and those who want to protect it.”