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The Art of War and Wilderness

Defining the fate of Idaho's Boulder-White Cloud Mountains

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Once upon a time, Idaho's forests were green, water ran gin-clear from the mountains, and the sky was not cloudy all day. In those days, there was no need for political wilderness. But in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, people like Mardy Murie, Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson and Wallace Stegner felt compelled to protect the last remaining wild places. Logging, mining and road building were rampant and wildlands were being diminished like "snow on a hot summer's day," as conservationist John Muir once said.

Zahniser wrote, shortly before dying: "I believe we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment." In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson enacted the Wilderness Act, seeking to protect unroaded land and 9 million acres were immediately designated as wilderness areas.

A MONUMENT OR A WILDERNESS?

In February, U.S. Representative Mike Simpson and Senator Jim Risch introduced the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act, a bill that would designate 275,665 acres of wilderness in three areas of the Boulder-White Cloud mountains. This bill has been in discussion for 30 years, but the current proposal, a re-crafted version of Simpson's CIEDRA legislation (Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act), which would have designated 332,928 acres in the Boulder-White Clouds, is much smaller than other plans over the years. The legislation shrank by 60,301 acres over several days of recent discussions with snowmobile and heli-skiing interests. Compromises have been traded for a dozen years, including, of late, attempts to win support from Risch, who is said to have blocked the last version of the bill in the Senate.

The new Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill allows more land to be used by off-road vehicle (ORV) and snowmobile riders by eliminating some roadless land from wilderness designation, but it also defines fewer exceptions to wilderness under the Wilderness Act, making the areas smaller while gaining begrudging support from some wilderness purists.

Simpson and Risch introduced their wilderness bill when they heard that President Barack Obama planned to proclaim a national monument in the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, an apparently frightening and nebulous proposal that worried many of their constituents in Central Idaho. The monument was said to protect the ecosystem overlaying the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, but it didn't define exactly what that protection meant. It could mean anything, as presidents have the power to protect the land under the Antiquities Act of 1906 by proclamation. It could be accomplished before anyone really knew what it would do. It would be fait accompli in a year and that threat prompted snowmobile supporters and off road motor vehicle users to react. In 2014, 89 percent of voters in Custer County, which is adjacent to the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, opposed the monument in an advisory ballot measure.

"We do need wilderness," Sandra Mitchell, public lands director of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association told me in February. "It is not a completely bad idea, however I believe there is enough wilderness in Idaho." Mitchell is a veteran of the "wilderness wars" the '80s and '90s and was an aide to former Senator Steve Symms. Consequently she is careful with her words but mostly clear on the message.

Before about 1998, logging and mining were seen as the biggest conflicts on roadless areas, but today logging in Idaho is only a small percentage of what it was in 1990 and mining has many more regulations attached to it after years of environmental litigation and wrangled-out compromises. Today the issues in the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains are mostly recreation-based conflicts.

"There are a lot of compromises in Simpson's (new) bill," said Dani Mazzotta, Central Idaho associate for the Idaho Conservation League (ICL). "It's tough, and over a decade it has been getting smaller every time we see it. We don't oppose it but we're disappointed in the trade-offs that are being made now. However, the national monument proposal has legs and strong support." A national monument does not protect wilderness, Mazzotta agreed. But she added that she thought that "President Obama will listen to all interests. It will be pretty balanced. The big thing is that ICL will continue to support the national monument and build more support for it."

But compromise is the name of the game in Idaho today. One of the reasons that Simpson again raised issues in Central Idaho in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act is that President Obama is considering proclaiming a national monument over the same area and Simpson doesn't like the uncertainty of the president's proposal. The president visited Idaho on Jan. 21 and Simpson's bill was offered just two days later for discussion.

Lindsay Slater, chief of staff for Simpson, said that Simpson "...wouldn't have suggested the bill if he thought that he couldn't get it done before the monument would be declared." John Podesta, known as a knuckle-rapping environmental emissary for the administration and former counselor to Obama, gave Simpson six to nine months to get his bill passed before the president would move on the monument idea. "Rep. Simpson has met with the affected groups and he continues to push for a bill that works for everyone. We think that an Idaho based solution would be better than a Washington D.C. plan," Slater added.