February 2, 2005

Idaho Mountain Express

Look for wilderness bill in spring: Boulder-White Clouds legislation to be tweaked this winter

Greg Stahl

Critics of new wilderness legislation for the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains might want to wait for a revised bill to be submitted to Congress later this year before pouring energy into fighting or supporting the legislation.

The bill, which could protect 294,100 acres of national forest and funnel approximately $18.25 million into Central Idaho, was submitted to Congress late last year by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. Because it was submitted in the waning hours of the 108th Congress, it must be resubmitted again during the current legislative session.

Last week, Simpson's chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, said the congressman would revise the legislation and present it to his congressional colleagues again late this spring.

"Now that it was introduced, people are taking a look at it," Slater said. "We want to get more feedback from people. What we're getting has been very helpful."

A number of revisions could result from ongoing input, Slater said. He declined, however, to elaborate about the pending changes.

"This is a listening process. We want to meet with everybody," he said. "Late spring would be the latest we'd look at introducing anything."

Simpson introduced his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act on Oct. 8 of last year. The bill included a major economic development package for Custer County, Blaine Country's northern neighbor, as well as wilderness protection for a significant chunk of the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges.

The bill would funnel about $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 291,100 acres of the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains as wilderness, the most restrictive land management designation in Congress' bag of tricks.

"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 after submitting his bill 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. Since then, and particularly in the last two years, he has worked to build consensus among the various stakeholders in the region.

One of the most controversial components in Simpson's bill is a plan to give publicly owned land to Custer and Blaine counties, as well as to the cities of Stanley, Mackay and Challis. In all, Simpson proposed to grant between eight and 10 tracts of public land to the various municipalities. In sum, the land could total about 2,000 acres.

Revisions during the next several months will help determine the extent to which last year's blueprint sticks around. When the new plan is finally finished, Slater said, the congressman will attempt to gather more public input before resubmitting the bill to congress.

When it is finally considered, the bill will begin its journey through the lawmaking process in the House Resources Committee. Slater declined to predict how Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act would fare in congressional hearings and also said he does not know if President George W. Bush would sign the bill.