A wilderness bill for both sides of the aisle

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson tries another Boulder-White Clouds bill in Idaho.


On Oct. 20, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson stepped onto stage and inspected his audience.

“You all know I’m a Republican, right?” he asked environmentalists and wilderness activists gathered at circular tables for the Frank Church Wilderness Conference luncheon in Boise.

While the audience lunched, Simpson proposed the latest iteration of a 11-year-old bill to make Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds, a mountainous quilt of roadless national forest and wilderness study area, into official, Congressionally-designated Wilderness. Simpson thinks this could be the year the bill passes, because pressure from the Obama administration could force the hand of conservatives who’ve stopped it in the past. Last year, after the executive branch indicated plans to designate the area a national monument, Simpson asked members of the administration to hold off until later this year, giving him one last chance to pass his bill, which would protect a smaller area than would a national monument, and make more concessions for recreationists and developers.

“It’s a compromise,” says Rick Johnson, director of Idaho Conservation League. “And it could be a tactic to run out the clock. But I sincerely believe his motivations are pure. Mike Simpson actually gets it. In a uniquely Idaho way, he’s a wilderness advocate.”

The White Cloud Mountains would be protected by Rep. Simpson's Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act. Photograph courtesy of Todd Burritt.

Simpson’s advocacy had its roots in the 1960s, when he was learning to horseback ride at Redfish Lake next to the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains. In 1972, Idaho chose wilderness over development remarkable for the eraby blocking a proposal for an open-pit molybdenum mine in the White Cloud Mountains. Since then, many Idahoans have sought formal protection for the mountains, located in the Sawtooth National Forest.

In 2004, Rep. Simpson took on the challenge. He created a wilderness bill with compromises, allowing motorized access on existing roads, giving some federal land and grants to Custer and Blaine Counties for economic development, and creating multi-use areas. The concessions were criticized by environmental groups, but Republican congressmen ultimately rejected the bill in 2006.

“To say I was disappointed is…” Simpson says, pausing to breathe deeply before finishing, “...kind of an understatement.”

But Simpson hasn’t given up. The bill he plans to introduce into Congress in a few weeks is even more of a compromise than the 2004 bill. The wilderness it would create would be about 35,000 acres smaller, multiple-use land would increase by about 25,000 acres, and 700 acres would be transferred to local cities and Custer and Blaine Counties for infrastructure projects. Simpson says he’s taking advice from other Republicans like U.S. Senator Jim Risch (Idaho) to make the bill more attractive to conservatives. But what’s most attractive is that the move to protect Boulder-White Clouds would come from Idaho, and not the president.

“I’m not opposed to the Antiquities Act (which gives executive power to create National Monuments). I think it’s important,” Simpson says. In fact, he voted against a 2012 bill to weaken the Antiquities Act. A similar bill is in Congress now, but Simpson doesn’t think it will get far. He understands his peers’ impulse to reject federal lands, and acknowledges how the ways in which the West was won -- federal land purchases and seizureshave made Western states different from Eastern states. But he doesn’t see this as geographical oppression, but rather the responsibilities that come with a special asset.

“Public lands are a unique challenge,” he says, “but people come here because of public lands.”

Johnson is skeptical that the bill will pass.  “We’ve not passed a wilderness bill in Idaho on forest service land since Frank Church was a senator,” he says, “It would be great for Idaho to prove they can do it.”

Simpson is optimistic that Idaho can, and that either way, the Boulder-White Clouds will soon be protected. “I can tell you, at this conference next year one of two things will happen,” he said, winding down his address. “The Boulder-White Clouds will be a national monument, or it will be a wilderness,” he declared. “Doing nothing is not an option.”

Kindra McQuillan is an editorial intern at High Country News. 

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