The final hours of the 109th Congress held some slim margin of hope for supporters of the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson's bill, known as the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, or CIEDRA, is a controversial attempt to preserve parts of the Boulder-White Cloud mountains as wilderness, while at the same time handing some federal land over to communities in the area for development. The bill had made it past the House in September, but was stumbling in the Senate due in part to questions raised by U.S. Sen. Larry Craig.
But the Idaho Conservation League's Rick Johnson was determined to find a way to get the measure out of the lame-duck Congress before Simpson's Republican Party was relegated to minority party status come January.
The strategy can be a little sneaky: a Nevada wilderness bill and a ban on oil and gas drilling in Montana both squeaked out of Congress because they were attached to a tax bill that needed to pass. Johnson and Simpson were hoping for a similar fate for CIEDRA, but got out-maneuvered at the last minute.
Things got crazy in D.C., Johnson said, when he and Simpson's staff heard they had a chance to attach CIEDRA onto the tax bill. That was late on Thursday, Johnson said.
"At that point, everyone went into hyperdrive," Johnson said. "It was in play, positively, well past the midnight hour."
Others were watching, too. Mike Bybee, a public lands lobbyist for The Sierra Club, said his organization, which is opposed to CIEDRA, was watching the process carefully.
In the end, it was early on Friday morning when another member of the committee succeeded in getting a different item attached to the tax bill, bumping CIEDRA. Johnson and his associates found that out late Friday morning, when the bill was printed and in draft form. It was, Johnson said, a wild day and a half, with staff hustling about Capitol Hill, from meeting rooms to offices.
"I can't imagine how this was ever done before cell phones," said an exhausted Johnson, now back in Boise. "The intensity of the last couple of days is really something to behold."
Still, he said this year's close calls with CIEDRA don't mean the effort is finished.
Bybee agrees, but he's hoping the Democratic takeover of Congress will mean that CIEDRA might become more of what he refers to as a "clean" wilderness bill, without the land giveaways, and with more wilderness protected. As it is, he said, the bill wasn't good enough to pass popular muster in D.C.
"It simply was too controversial," Bybee said. "It did not enjoy enough popular support to make it through. We're excited to move forward with real wilderness bills."