Simpson pieces wilderness politics
"It sounds like (Simpson’s) on the
right track. I think the country’s gone to hell the last 20 to 25 years.
Everyone wants money for themselves and to hell with everyone else. They want to
go wherever they want to go. They don’t want any restrictions. They want more
roads—things that will benefit them."
— ART FENWICK, Challis, retired
from U.S. Forest Service
"We need as much private land in Custer
County as we can get, but I’m not willing to trade the White Clouds for it. I
want to know that a portion of the White Clouds would be available for some good
farmland or something."
— MILDRED FISHER, Challis
"You’re still going to see stand-alone
wilderness bills passed by Congress. But more and more, you’re going to see
wilderness bills as part of a bigger package, which addresses other land-use
issues or social issues or the needs of a particular part of a state. It’s just
the way it is in Congress now. You just have fewer chances to pass legislation
— BART KOEHLER, Wilderness Support
"One of the main things that really
bothers me about the folks over there is, okay, you want the Boulder-White
Clouds as wilderness. (But) nobody over there will give me anything as an
alternative. What’s our alternative other than going broke and leaving?"
— LIN HINTZE, Custer County
By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer
As the myriad of players in the
Boulder-White Clouds wilderness chess match emerged the last four years, so,
too, have the complications associated with 21st century wilderness
Today’s wilderness discussions are
different animals from what they were 20 years ago and are increasingly being
used by politicians as opportunities to legislate solutions to an array of
social and political problems—in this case, the ailing economy of a rural Idaho
So far, a number of groups are still
looking for middle ground. Many environmental groups have said they are opposed
to proposed land sales that would support Custer County, while Custer County
officials have said the sales are a cornerstone of their support for wilderness
designation in the first place.
And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
"It’s kind of like trying to put together
an intricate puzzle with public opinion winds blowing in all directions. It’s
certainly a delicate effort, which requires special care, skill and tact," said
Bart Koeler, director of The Wilderness Society’s Wilderness Support Center and
the organization’s point man on the Central Idaho wilderness issue. "But I still
believe we’ll get there. I have faith that a good bill will emerge."
Bones of contention
The politics of the Boulder-White Clouds
wilderness discussion are as varied as the thousands of people who have laid
claim to the federally owned land in the two rugged mountain ranges.
Motorcyclists, mountain bikers,
environmentalists, ranchers, local officials and hikers, to name only a few, are
staking out positions while awaiting the release of draft concepts—anticipated
in September—from Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
But Simpson’s chief of staff, Lindsay
Slater, has been careful to point out that the congressman is not looking for
consensus, and he has been equally clear on who holds the majority of the
bargaining chips. The Custer County commissioners will have to endorse the plan
before it goes anywhere, Slater said.
"They’re going to have to sign off on
this," Slater said. "If they don’t sign off, it doesn’t move forward."
In rough terms, Simpson is considering
designation of about 250,000 acres of wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud
Mountains and eastern White Cloud foothills. Areas of traditional motorized
use—particularly among snowmobilers and motorcycle riders—will not be included,
In an attempt to simultaneously aid the
beleaguered economy of Custer County, Simpson also plans to attach to his
wilderness bill a still-evolving plan to raise up to $10 million for economic
development in the rural county through the sale of approximately 16,000 acres
of public land.
Though Slater said the land would probably
be conveyed from the Challis National Forest, he hinted that small, highly
valued parcels on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area could be sold in order
to reduce the total acreage affected by the transaction. As an example, he said
1 acre fronting Pettit Lake could be worth as much as $1 million, compared with
1 acre on the Challis National Forest that could value between $30,000 and
"At this point, it’s not part of the plan,
but we’re not taking it off the table right now, either," he said.
Environmental and sportsman’s groups are
smarting at the concept of a public lands sale, while at least one Custer County
commissioner has said the proposal is the cornerstone of the deal.
"Nobody over there (in the Sun Valley
area) will give me anything as an alternative," said Custer County Commissioner
and Lin Hintze, of Mackay. "What’s our alternative other than going broke and
Conservationists have long pushed for a
500,000-acre wilderness, but Custer County Commissioner Wayne Butts told a Salt
Lake City reporter in June that he’ll agree to 120,000 acres and "I’ll fight the
rest of it."
"I think the wilderness is too big,"
agreed Hintze, "and what they’re trying to give us is too small. In a county the
size of Connecticut, 16,000 acres (of traded public land) is too small. It will
do absolutely nothing for us. I would think I would want 160,000 acres at least,
instead of 16,000."
The Idaho Conservation League, meanwhile,
said it is willing to accept less than 500,000 acres of wilderness, but 250,000
acres is too small. The proposed sale of public lands is another bone of
Environmentalists, who usually portray a united front, have
not always agreed on some of the finer points of Simpson’s plan.
In a recent letter to the congressman, the ICL’s board of
directors made clear the organization’s recently announced objections to the
concept of a public land sale, as well as to proposed wilderness boundaries that
would leave high mountain valleys and other prized areas open to snowmobilers
and summertime motorized users.
The letter was an apparent response to uncommon insurgency
among environmentalists charging that ICL was too narrowly focused on the
Boulder-White Clouds and was compromising more significant environmental
"In the last month, many other organizations and individuals
inside and outside of Idaho, representing conservation, recreation, fishing and
hunting interests, have contacted us in opposition to this concept," the board
wrote. "We agree with them."
ICL Executive Director Rick Johnson said that if the public
land earmarked for Custer County does not sell, the resulting revenues to be
used for economic development would fall short.
"A direct appropriation from Congress would solve that
problem," he said, a sentiment expressed widely among environmental groups.
Hammering out wilderness boundaries to the satisfaction of
conservationists and motorized groups is predicted to be another of the bill’s
crux issues. ICL and other environmental groups have stressed that motorized
corridors bisecting the potential wilderness area would be unacceptable.
"This issue has been front and center in debates on past
wilderness initiatives and contributed greatly to their failure," the board
wrote in its letter.
But motorized groups are pushing for more access to several
areas, including Germania Creek, Grand Prize Gulch and Frog Lake, where there
are "some of the really neatest trails for any experience of rider," said Blue
Ribbon Coalition Executive Director Clark Collins.
"There are some folks who just don’t trust the political
process to treat us fairly," Collins said. "Our position is that we feel we
should be able to preserve the current recreation access that our constituents
have in the Boulder-White Clouds area."
But conservation groups also assert that motorized access
should not have been allowed in many Boulder-White Cloud regions in the first
place. When the area was set aside as a congressionally mandated wilderness
study area in 1972, the Forest Service should have restricted access, some
"What we think is, the Forest Service has been violating its
own wilderness recommendation by allowing motorized and snowmobile use to
continue in there," Koehler said. "Basically, our hope is that, if or when there
is a wilderness bill, that it will treat the area as it should have been treated
all along, as wilderness."
For his part, Slater said some of the access issues, most
notably a motorized corridor connecting the East Fork of the Salmon River with
the Sawtooth Valley, have yet to be resolved.
Not a numbers game
As in many political arenas, the Boulder-White Clouds discussion appears
Motorized users and the citizens of Custer County have front-and-center seats
at Simpson’s negotiating table, yet they are outnumbered by nonmotorized forest
travelers and the neighboring citizens of traditionally liberal Blaine County by
a significant margin.
The people of Blaine County outnumber those in Custer by 18,991 to 4,342,
according to the 2000 Census. And, although a significant portion of the
proposed wilderness would likely be within Blaine’s borders, Simpson has not yet
contacted the Blaine County Commission about his plans for the area.
"I think having a conversation with us would be in order," said Blaine County
Commissioner Sarah Michael. "The whole focus has been on giving Custer County
what it wants, but not giving any consideration for Blaine County’s desires."
Similarly, voluntary U.S. Forest Service trail registries indicated that 74
percent of those who chose to sign in at 20 Boulder-White Cloud trailheads
between 1999 and 2002 were hikers or horse packers who would continue to have
access to the land if designated as wilderness. The registrations also indicated
that 34 percent of those who signed in were mountain bikers, motorcyclists or
all-terrain vehicle riders, user groups whose use would not be permitted beyond
Of the motorized and mechanized users, mountain bikers constituted a clear
majority, with 21 percent of the total sign-ins. However, roughly 85 percent of
all mountain bikers signed in at Fisher Creek, which is not included in
wilderness recommendations drafted by Simpson, the Forest Service or
"It’s not completely based on logic. It’s political, and (ranchers and
motorized groups) have a big seat at the political table in the West," said Linn
Kincannon, ICL Central Idaho Director.
Support for wilderness designation in the Boulder and White Cloud mountain
ranges has emerged resoundingly from Blaine County citizens and government
In the last two years, the cities of Sun Valley, Ketchum and Hailey; the
Blaine County Commission; and the Sun Valley-Ketchum and Bellevue chambers of
commerce have endorsed wilderness protection beyond the scope of Simpson’s plan.
Each government body approved resolutions advocating a 500,000-acre
Boulder-White Cloud wilderness, as well as calling for wilderness protection for
the Pioneer and Smoky mountain ranges.
Ketchum Mayor Ed Simon said wilderness designation for his city is a
no-brainer. The tourism economy on this side of the divide, would clearly
benefit, he said.
"I think it clearly is an economic boon," he said. "I think we make our
living based on the great outdoors, and being on the edge of a wilderness, as we
are in Ketchum, I think does impact us positively, because wilderness gets a
positive response from tourists. They want to see things stay in a pristine
state somewhere in the country."
Challis Mayor Cathy Becher, on the other hand, is more skeptical about what
wilderness designation can do for her community. She suspects that most people
who travel to wilderness areas are well-to-do financially, but may not travel
when the national economy slumps.
At the same time, she said a wilderness designation could, in fact,
discourage some travelers from visiting Challis.
"The 16,000 acres isn’t a whole lot of land," said Becker in regard to
Simpson’s proposed economic development package.
The "big if," she added, will be the reaction from the Custer County
"There are just so many unknowns," she said.
‘The art of the possible’
The complex relations between people in society—including the Boulder-White
Clouds discussion—are something Koehler refers to as "the art of the possible."
As a 30-year wilderness advocate, Koehler has worked on protections for 6
million acres in 12 states and has a good feel for the complexities of striking
a successful deal.
"It seems very clear that this is Idaho’s time to shine in the sun," he said.
"When you have your time in the sun, you can’t be afraid of your own shadow.
"What that means is, you have to take some risks, but you can’t be reckless.
In the end, all the groups involved need to do everything they possibly can to
come up with a good piece of legislation."