Bill to protect central Idaho mountains clears Congress

By Phil Taylor | 08/05/2015 07:08 AM EDT

A decadelong push to protect central Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds region came to a close yesterday afternoon with the Senate’s unanimous approval of H.R. 1138.

The bill by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), which passed the House last week by voice vote, now heads to President Obama’s desk, where it is expected to be signed this summer.

Simpson’s bill would designate 275,000 acres of wilderness, forever banning mining, logging, road building and motorized recreation in a region prized for its alpine lakes, salmon streams and towering mountain peaks.


Conservationists said the Boulder-White Clouds region is the largest unprotected, roadless and forested landscape remaining in the United States outside Alaska.

The measure, which Simpson introduced a decade ago, is also the largest wilderness bill to pass Congress since the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.

"Today really is a historic day for the state of Idaho," said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who sponsored an identical bill in the Senate. "Congressman Simpson was tenacious on this."

Simpson issued a statement yesterday calling the bill’s passage a "huge victory" for Idahoans and praising Risch for shepherding it through the upper chamber.

Passage was unusually swift for a wilderness bill — it saw two hearings, two markups and passage by both chambers in about two months — but was driven in large part by the threat that Obama would declare a much larger area as a national monument (E&E Daily, Aug. 3).

Conservationists said the bill’s wilderness acreage had to be pared down by more than 50,000 acres to appease motorized trail users and gain Risch’s support.

A handful of groups hailed its passage.

"This is a great day for all Americans who treasure central Idaho’s beautiful Boulder-White Cloud Mountains," said Mike Matz, director of U.S. public lands at the Pew Charitable Trusts. "This natural gem is one of the largest unprotected wild places in the Lower 48 states, with magnificent 10,000-foot peaks, sparkling alpine lakes and flower-filled meadows teeming with wildlife."

Ian Malepeai, co-chairman of the Idaho chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, called Boulder-White Clouds a "quintessentially Western landscape for hunting, fishing, hiking and simple solitude."

The bill was also tweaked from earlier versions to release about 23,000 more acres of lands for potential multiple use. It would release 155,000 acres of wilderness study areas and Forest Service lands that had been recommended for wilderness, according to Simpson’s office.

Those moves helped it gain the support of the Idaho Recreation Council, a motorized recreation group that had doggedly opposed earlier versions of the bill.

In addition, the bill would also allow ranchers along the East Fork of the Salmon River to voluntarily retire their grazing permits and be compensated by a third-party conservation group.

The Boulder-White Clouds region, which is just east of the existing Sawtooth Wilderness area, provides habitat for eight of Idaho’s big-game species, including the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mountain goat, elk, moose and antelope, according to the Wilderness Society. The lands also contain the wolverine, gray wolf, lynx and mountain lion, TWS said.

DeGette to reintroduce Colo. bill

Today, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) will announce the reintroduction of her "Colorado Wilderness Act," which would protect 32 separate areas consisting of more than 715,000 acres.

"The Act will preserve a wide range of wilderness-quality public land, including high mountain peaks and critical lower-elevation red rock canyons," DeGette’s office said in a media release. "The legislation is a citizen-based proposal with support from county commissions, businesses, and residents across Colorado."

The congresswoman is hosting a press call at noon EDT to announce the package with the support of a youth outdoor education organization and an outdoor gear manufacturer.

The bill would primarily protect middle-elevation lands and canyons under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, which DeGette has argued are underrepresented in the nation’s wilderness system.