When it comes to roadless areas, Idaho is the big enchilada. No other state, aside from Alaska, comes close in terms of acreage. With 9.3 million acres of un-roaded backcountry that isn't otherwise protected as an official wilderness area, the stakes are high for any decisions about that acreage.
So when Gov. Jim Risch unveils his proposal to the federal government regarding management of the 281 un-roaded parcels in the state--something he's doing this week, while BW goes to press--lots of eyes will be watching.
Wednesday's revelation will be many-sided. In an interview with BW, Risch said he'll be creating, by executive order, two new commissions to help coordinate with the federal government as it proceeds with its roadless area rule-making process.
The entire process comes from President Bush's 2005 decision to nullify former President Clinton's directive to protect the nation's 58 million acres of roadless lands. Instead, the Bush administration asked for states to deliver petitions that had each state's recommendation for how to proceed with new management plans for the nation's roadless areas. Since then, five states have complied with Bush's mandate. Since early this summer, Idaho's county commissions have been gathering and preparing comment about roadless areas for the governor--the process began in June 2005 under former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne--to consider.
Risch said he can promise two things. One, his petition will not include a bugaboo long feared by Idaho conservationists--any so-called "triggers" that allow for more activity within roadless areas--nor will it actually create any new official wilderness areas in Idaho.
"We are not creating wilderness here, nor can we create wilderness," Risch said. "Only the United States Congress can do that, by law."
His proposal will, however, accommodate the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains wilderness proposal pushed by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson. The plan, known as the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, or CIEDRA, goes up for a Senate hearing next week. Risch said he is a supporter of CIEDRA.
While Capitol Hill debates federal wilderness proposals, Risch said the two new groups he's forming will be monitoring the state's 9 million roadless acres.
The first group, which Risch has called the Roadless Rulemaking Commission, is composed of county commissioners whose input helped shape his petition, along with some of his staff. It will only exist so long as the federal rulemaking process goes forward.
"If it's going to be implemented, it needs input from us," Risch said. "And it needs input from the counties, since we asked them for their input and involvement in this."
That group, Risch said, will be around "as long as necessary."
The second group, which Risch referred to as a "council," is designed to have a longer life and a broader scope of influence over Idaho roadless areas.
"It will be large enough to accommodate all points of view," Risch said. "Well, almost all points of view."
The mere process for gathering comments started sparks flying. Back in February, when the Idaho Statesman revealed that the industry-friendly Idaho Council on Industry and the Environment would be gathering the public comments, wilderness advocates howled, calling the process flawed. In another sign of dissatisfaction, some conservation groups held their own impromptu public "hearing" on the plan in Ada County earlier this year, because no such official hearings were set for Idaho's most populated area.
Risch's plan may have ingredients that infuriate conservationists who have been watching the process unfold. What is certain, however, is that the management of Idaho's roadless areas is a long way from being resolved.
"This is going to take a long time," said John Freemuth, a political science professor at Boise State.
That's because Risch's Statehouse announcement, which was slated to include Assistant U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, will start a process that ultimately includes a major federal approval process that will include more opportunities for public input.
In short, there's nothing short about it.
Already four states' attorneys generals have filed suit against the Bush administration's roadless plans. Late last week, Risch surprised precisely no one by filing a friend-of-the-court brief, siding with the Bush administration, and suggesting that the roadless area rulemaking process should go on.
Both Risch and his chief adviser on the process expect that when it's all said and done, management plans over roadless areas are also likely to become the subject of legal challenges.
"A court case will undoubtedly be filed over the rule itself," said Jim Caswell, the director of the Idaho Office of Species Conservation.
Risch said nothing is certain when it comes to federal land management.
"The question becomes, well, what is the length of time where these rules apply?" Risch said. "That all depends on what happens in the future. Congress could step in tomorrow and write a law that covers all 9.3 million acres. Now, that is highly unlikely. Or, this could drag out another 40 years, where the environmental groups on the one side, and the total 100-percent-use groups on the other side, fight with each other and nothing happens."
Something in between, Risch said, is more likely.
Personnel changes will also come into play. In the midst of the federal approval process, Idaho will change governors. Whether he is relegated back to his lieutenant governor status in January, or is defeated by Democratic challenger Larry LaRocco, Risch is running out of time as the lead dog on Idaho's roadless issues. But his actions this week suggest that his mark on the issue will be long-standing.