Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Simpson pieces wilderness politics puzzle

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By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

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"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

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"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 in Congress."

BART KOEHLER

Wilderness Support Center

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"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 commissioner

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Written on August 13, 2003

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 designations.

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 county.

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, Slater said.

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 $70,000.

"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 leaving?"

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 contention altogether.

Uncommon insurgency

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 concerns.

"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 groups said.

"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 somewhat incongruous.

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 wilderness boundaries.

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 environmentalists.

"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.

Resolute wishes

Support for wilderness designation in the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges has emerged resoundingly from Blaine County citizens and government leaders.

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 Commission.

"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."




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