A proposal to designate more than 300,000 acres of wilderness in central Idaho appears to be in a political tailspin, dashing hopes among wilderness advocates that the Gem State could soon resolve a decades-long debate over management of its public lands.
Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson's "Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act" (CIEDRA) was reintroduced this spring with sponsorship from the entire Idaho congressional delegation and garnered the support of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials at a June hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
But Sen. Jim Risch (R), a co-sponsor of the bill and member of the committee, in July announced he was rethinking the proposal amid concerns from Idaho Republican Gov. Butch Otter and other stakeholders.
Risch, whose support is key if the bill hopes to receive a committee vote, said yesterday he had no personal concerns with the bill, but that any necessary changes to ready the bill for a markup would need to come from Simpson.
"This is not my bill, it is Congressman Simpson's bill," Risch said. "I haven't talked to Mike about it, but I'm always ready to."
Simpson, however, said his staff has already prepared an amendment to resolve most of Otter's concerns, but that Risch has been unwilling to allow a committee vote.
"We've got an amendment and are ready to go," Simpson said. "We could do that tomorrow, but the problem is [Risch] has refused to allow them to put it on for a markup."
Otter in June sent a letter to the committee opposing the bill, arguing that Idaho had no need for additional wilderness. If a bill were to go forward anyway, Otter urged lawmakers to ensure helicopter access for wildlife management, include provisions requiring the purchase of state lands within a new wilderness area, allow for aggressive eradication of invasive and noxious weeds, and require that certain federal lands outside the wilderness area be conveyed to counties before wilderness can be designated.
"Idaho already has over 4.5 million acres of wilderness in 12 different areas," Otter wrote, citing the 217,000-acre Sawtooth Wilderness and the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
Proponents of the bill contend that most of Otter's concerns could be met through minor tweaks to the bill's language and that a majority of Idaho residents continue to support the proposal.
"We think we've addressed, to the extent that we can, the concerns the governor expressed in his letter," Simpson said.
Regarding Risch's lagging support for the bill, Simpson said, "I think he's making a politically bad decision. But that's for him to decide."
What the bill does
The bill seeks to preserve one of the largest tracts of unprotected lands in the lower 48 states by prohibiting motorized transport in three separate wilderness areas known as White Clouds, Hemingway/Boulders and Jerry Peak. The combined 333,000 acres include the headwaters of four major rivers that provide spawning grounds for salmon and habitat for other wildlife.
Meanwhile, more than 130,000 acres of wilderness study areas that have been managed for decades as de facto wilderness would be released from protections under Forest Service and BLM management plans.
The Germania Creek Trail separating the White Clouds wilderness from the Hemingway/Boulders wilderness and the Frog Lake Trail running through the White Clouds wilderness would remain open to motorized recreation, despite the opposition of some wilderness advocates.
But the Grand Prize Trail running through the Hemingway/Boulders wilderness would be closed to motorized vehicles, and mountain bikers would no longer be able to ride in any of the area's wilderness. Other trails open to motorized recreation would only remain open to snowmobiles to ensure protection of natural habitats.
Current grazing in wilderness areas would continue to be permitted under the bill, but ranchers would have the opportunity to gain compensation for voluntarily relinquishing permits.
Certain federal acres outside the wilderness areas would be ceded to counties to be used for public services such as a cemetery, a waste transfer station, a fire station and a school bus turnaround. Within three years, the federal government would be expected to purchase more than 3,000 acres of state land located within the wilderness areas.
The remaining parts of the wilderness feature pristine alpine lakes and more than 150 peaks above 10,000 feet, said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League and a key promoter of the bill.
Although much of the proposed wilderness already enjoys the highest level of protection allowed under Idaho's roadless rule -- a plan Risch helped develop as governor of Idaho -- Johnson said the future of those lands remains in the hands of federal land management officials and they deserve congressional protection.
"The roadless rule was a process that informed and ultimately helped provide direction to an agency decision," Johnson told the committee in June. "But that is an agency decision that can be overturned by different agency leadership."
GOP, tea party opposition
Opposition to the bill began to grow in the spring with the Idaho Republican primaries, which saw renewed attacks from off-highway vehicle (OHV) users and tea party activists in Custer County who have vigorously opposed the ban on OHVs in wilderness areas.
The proposed trail closures and wilderness designations are a non-starter for the Idaho Recreation Council, an influential group representing OHV and motorcycle users, mountain bikers, horse riders and other groups in the state.
"We're not going to give up what we have," said Sandra Mitchell, executive director of IRC, adding that motorized users provide much-needed winter business to the nearby communities of Stanley and Challis. "Simply because someone decided to recreate with a motor, they shouldn't be told, 'No.'"
The Idaho Republican Party, in a resolution passed during its June convention, joined IRC in opposing the bill.
Meanwhile, Custer County elected officials who have so far supported the bill have received stepped-up pressure from the politically conservative Custer County Tea Party Patriots, which met with Otter and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo (R) recently to lobby against the bill.
The renewed opposition has helped stifle the bill's momentum in Congress, frustrating supporters who had believed it would have a better chance of passing in the Senate after several unsuccessful attempts in the House.
"Hands were shaken," said Idaho Conservation League's Johnson, describing the scene of final negotiations between the Idaho delegation and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee staff earlier this year.
Idaho's senators "have more or less used [Otter's] opposition as an excuse that more compromise is needed," said Johnson, who has worked on the wilderness proposal since the mid-1980s. "They are states' rights people and they will not roll the governor."
The bill's struggle in committee may also raise questions over the value of the collaborative process in which traditional adversaries come together to craft public lands bills, Johnson said.
"You have the support of a Republican member of congress in the [bill's] district and you still can't get the damn thing through," he said.
"I think there is a long-term political mistake being made by our senators," he added. "This collaborative process has been proved wrong by them."
Other lawmakers attempting to bring opposite sides of the wilderness debate together for public lands proposals have experienced similar struggles.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D) more than a year ago introduced a wilderness bill that sought to balance the interests of environmentalists, off-highway vehicle users and the timber industry.
The "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act" would designate more than 600,000 acres of wilderness in Montana and require 100,000 acres of timber harvests over the next 15 years, but the bill continues to face opposition from some environmental groups and county commissioners and is yet to receive a committee markup.
Paul Spitler, national wilderness campaigns associate director for the Wilderness Society, said there are about 20 wilderness proposals covering roughly 4 million acres of public lands that wilderness advocates would like to see passed by this Congress.
But like CIEDRA, the fate of many of those bills will be difficult to determine without knowing the outcome of the November elections.
"It's going to be tough to get these bills out of this Congress," he said. "There's a pretty serious risk here that if they don't happen in this Congress, it will be a major setback for them."
Click here to read Gov. Otter's letter.