It's "the wildest bill on the hill" in the words of a key proponent, and it's about to get a Capitol Hill hearing.
The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act is a massive wilderness bill that would designate 23 million acres across five states, including 9.5 million acres in Idaho, 7 million in Montana, 5 million in Wyoming, 750,000 in eastern Oregon and 500,000 in eastern Washington.
The total includes 3 million acres in Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton national parks.
A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Oct. 18 before the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee.
The Helena, Mont.-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies has been pushing the bill for nearly 20 years. Alliance Executive Director Michael Garrity said it will protect rare species like grizzly bears, bull trout and lynx, while creating jobs through restoring old roads and clear cuts.
Singer-songwriter Carole King, a Custer County resident, has long been an advocate for the bill. She said it was drafted by a group of well-respected biologists from the region about 18 years ago. Next week's hearing is a good opportunity to see a bill that many have long deemed unworkable because of its scope gain congressional approval, King said.
"This is very exciting," she said. "We have a very real possibility to see passage of this bill through Congress. We'll cross the bridge of President Bush when we get there."
King said she became involved with NREPA because she had been an advocate for Idaho wilderness since the early 1980s.
"I liked the scientific approach and the economic approach because it saves taxpayers money, and it creates jobs," she said.
The idea that designated wilderness assists with economic development in rural areas is controversial. A 2004 report by the Bozeman, Mont., office of the Sonoran Institute, however, asserts that proximity to wild lands does, in fact, stimulate economic growth.
"We discovered that Wilderness, National Parks, National Monuments, and other protected public lands, set aside for their wild land characteristics, can and do play an important role in stimulating economic growth—and the more protected, the better," the report states.
King put it this way:
"We see ghost towns all over the West based on extractive industry," she said. "You don't see any based on proximity to wilderness."
The flip side is that land protections like wilderness prevent access for some, and those include recreation advocates for off-road vehicles, as well as industries like timber and mining.
Politicians like U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, are attempting to bridge the past with the present in that regard. They are trying to build a new wilderness model based on compromise between a myriad of public land stakeholders. Both Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act and Crapo's Owyhee Initiative are pending hearings in the 110th Congress.
Simpson's bill would protect 318,765 acres of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains as wilderness while releasing other areas from wilderness study status, establish permanent motorized recreation areas and give certain federal lands away for development.
Simpson's chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, declined to comment on the pending committee hearing on NREPA. But it is important to note that NREPA includes lands that are specified for designation in Simpson's CIEDRA. King is a strong and outspoken critic of Simpson's bill.
"I don't mean the chopped-up wilderness found in bills like CIEDRA," she said referencing what she deems true, functional wilderness. "I mean large chunks of intact, functional ecosystem wilderness."
Crapo's bill, built through a collaborative stakeholder process, would protect 517,000 acres of the Owyhee Canyonlands as wilderness while releasing wilderness study areas and preserving livestock grazing as an economically viable use.
But ranching and motorized recreation are only small facets of economic stimulation, King said, and NREPA would go further.
NREPA would establish a "wildland recovery project" that would restore or eliminate 6,000 roads. Such recovery would create jobs, she said. She also pointed out that taxpayers would save money because wilderness areas do not require intensive hands-on management.
Regardless of the politics at work, the science is pretty clear that more designated wilderness would benefit wild ecosystems. People and their myriad uses for the land are the tripping point.
"The biological corridors that were in the bill two decades ago are now known to mitigate the effects of global warming for species because it is known that they provide corridors for them to migrate to cooler climates," King said.
NREPA's lead sponsors are U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, and Christopher Shays, R-Conn. There are 114 co-sponsors, including House Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.V.
King said NREPA was first introduced in the early 1990s, and it had a hearing in 1994, the last year Democrats controlled the House.
"The bill obviously didn't pass," King said. "But there were no objections to the science, to the economics or to the jobs. There were only objections from Westerners having Easterners tell them what to do."
King said that at the 1994 hearing, Maloney reminded those in attendance that the lands in question were owned by all Americans.
"And then the objections became more vociferous and personal, but there were still no objections to the science or the economics or the creation of jobs," King said.
King will join Garrity and several others to testify at the Oct. 18 hearing. She said she believes there are enough votes to get it moving out of committee.
"This is a bipartisan bill anyway," she said. "I will lobby on its behalf as I've done over the last 18 years."