It sounds like a paradox, but a congressional designation of wilderness can actually harm what is wild. I believe that will come true if Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson’s bill, the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, becomes law.
Whether we like it or not, once that law is passed, the law of unintended consequences will kick in. A White Cloud-Boulder Mountains Wilderness brings with it giveaways of federal land to municipal and county governments and the granting of improved routes for ORVs, motorcycles and mountain bikes. While the Simpson bill is touted as a model of collaboration for landuse in the West, its precedent is the delivery of federal pork to political interest groups, a process that hasn’t always benefited either the ethics or aims of the recipients.
For example, the White Clouds and the Boulder ranges are currently wild due to rugged terrain, surrounding roadless zones and distance from large population centers. But Simpson’s bill will create common areas for specific segregated groups that will draw in so many people the result is sure to be overuse. The status quo is therefore more protective of wilderness than a congressional imprimatur.
In many parts of the West, wilderness has created sacrifice areas out of bordering land, as trophy homes, real estate offices, and baby horse ranches --the stigmata of the New West — appear near the trailheads. We have all seen people come West for the solitude and romance and wildness of the region, and then see these same people ruin what they came for by re-creating the cultural and physical landscape they’ve escaped. Wilderness designation is part of an urban dream: It bureaucratizes land and creates an entity that is tied to legal and commercial interests. It is also heavily policed, even as it looks natural and free.
Another way to put the cultural change is to say that cowboys become houseboys.
The impoverished municipalities that think to gain from the bill’s gift of federal land will also see unintended consequences in the kind of people attracted to that gift. For example, the plan in Stanley, Idaho, is to sell the newly acquired land for luxury homesites. The stronger tax base these homes bring is supposed to bring solvency to local governments and schools. I have two words for Rep. Simpson: Teapot Dome. If the congressman wants to forever tie his name to questionable privatization of federal assets, he should keep this aspect of his bill intact. The sudden conversion of federal land into luxury real estate for private gain is liable to infuriate taxpayers elsewhere.
Hundreds of little starve-acre communities are scattered across the American West, and most of them are conservative and Republican. Conservative or not, they’re going to want their share. And they’re not going to be happy with chunks of Nevada salt flats; they’re going to want federal land they can sell for huge sums.
Watching the scramble will not be for the squeamish. The potential for corruption is high. Someone will have to decide what unspoiled places to give away — along with lot boundaries and asking prices — and who gets to buy in. Neighbors who bought property thinking that their views and privacy were protected by bordering national forest will hire lawyers. The rich will want to make sure that no affordable housing depresses their property values.
One group of people sure to be watching the whole process of federal land transfer is the West’s Native Americans. Up to now, the land that the tribes lost in treaty violations hasn’t been monetized. But the Simpson bill will comodify the resource base in the language of economics, and then the tribes will have a dollar figure to give to their lawyers when the courts begin to scrutinize 19th century treaties. That’s when the true expense of this bad bill will become apparent.
There are other unintended consequences, but these should be enough to question the wisdom of going ahead with the act. Right now, Challis and nearby towns are benefiting because of a spike in molybdenum prices, so the necessity for an economic development act for them isn’t as dire as it once was. The mines commodify the resource base, too, though they don’t commodify so much of it.
If there’s a worldwide depression and the moly mine closes again, I hope Rep. Simpson forgets the peculiar bundle of compromises that has become his bill and just gives every man, woman, and child in central Idaho a check for a hundred thousand dollars. Financially, culturally and spiritually, it will be cheaper.
John Rember is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). A wilderness ranger in Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness for seven years, he now lives and writes in Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.