How a long-sought Idaho wilderness bill defies the odds

The threat of a national monument gets Boulder-White Clouds the highest protection.


When Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson shared a copy of the latest version of his Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill with a conservation leader, he hand wrote a note on its first page: “The Elvis version — 'It’s now or never.' ” 

This week, after 12 years of sponsoring wilderness bills, Simpson triumphed. The Senate passed the bill, preserving 275,000 acres of gorgeous mountain terrain, and sent it to President Barack Obama, who plans to sign it Aug. 7 into law. The Republican congressman’s urgency reflects his certainty that if he failed to get the bill through this year, Obama would use the Antiquities Act to name a monument instead.

Rep. Simpson's seven wilderness bills.
Justin Hayes

Last fall, Simpson approached John Podesta, who at the time was counselor to Obama, at an awards dinner in Washington. “I went up to him and said, ‘give me six months into this new Congress and let me see what I can get done,’” Simpson recalled Wednesday in a telephone interview with HCN. “He said go for it.”

Podesta was pushing national monuments, as HCN has reported, and the president has designated an impressive list of them. The administration gave Simpson that time, but kept working on a possible monument designation and even had planned public meetings in Idaho this month, according to Simpson.

“As always, it's preferable and often most durable to provide long-term protections to important places through legislation — and so when Simpson told us he wanted to make one more try at getting his bill passed, we thought that was a worthwhile effort,” a former administration official, speaking on the condition that he not be named, told HCN.

Earlier versions of the bill had flopped because the Senate didn’t have as stalwart a champion as Simpson. For instance, Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican who was key to this year’s victory, dropped his support in 2010. Motor vehicle enthusiasts and ranchers were among those opposed to earlier versions. But this time around, the threat of a monument declaration provided a powerful incentive to get politicians, ranchers, conservationists and recreationists to agree on a compromise bill.

“We’d rather have an Idaho solution rather than one imposed by Washington,” Simpson said.

After meetings with recreationists, he redrew to carve out favorite trails for motorcycles, snow machines and four wheelers. Conservation groups got a provision that offers voluntary buyouts to ranchers to retire grazing rights. “That’s the nature of a compromise; this is not the bill that anyone who was king for a day would write,” Simpson says.

The congressman says he fought so hard for wilderness rather than a monument because it’s the highest form of protection for federal lands. By law, no one can develop or even ride a bicycle in a wilderness area. A monument would give federal officials more leeway in deciding how to manage the area. 

Castle and Merriam Peaks in Boulder-White Clouds.
Fredlyfish4 Wikimedia

“They can write a management plan that says anything they want,” Simpson said, by way of warning, during a speech to the Frank Church Wilderness Conference in Boise last fall.

Under the wilderness bill, two trails beloved by mountain bikers will be closed to them. By contrast, the administration was working to keep them open in a monument, according to Justin Hayes, program director of the Idaho Conservation League.

That’s not to say that the Idaho wilderness bill is without detractors. It’s smaller — by tens of thousands of acres — than previous versions. Former Idaho Governor and U.S. Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, who had supported previous versions, criticized Simpson for making too many compromises to woo motor vehicle recreationists and their Senate Republican backers. Andrus spoke out publicly earlier this year in favor of the president designating a monument instead. (His spokeswoman said he wasn’t available this week to comment on the bill passage.)

The measure also was the only wilderness bill a prominent mountain biking group had ever opposed. Jeremy Fancher, interim director of government affairs at the International Mountain Bicycling Association, said his group was “disappointed.”  The group had counted on the Obama administration to craft a monument designation that would allow bikers to still use the castle divide and ants basin trails — difficult paths through awe-inspiring terrain that bikers around the world have included on their bucket lists.  But despite many conversations with Simpson about the bill, “accommodations are made for a lot of uses that have a lot more environmental and social impacts than a bicycle does,” Fancher says.

However, conservation leaders who have worked for decades to preserve the central Idaho mountains were delighted. “It feels really super good,” says Craig Gehrke, regional director of the Wilderness Society, who remembers signing his first petition to protect the White Clouds as wilderness in 1981.

Trail that's currently open to mountain bikers in the Boulder-White Clouds area.
Leslie Kehmeier/IMBA

The bill secures habitat for big horn sheep, cougars and wolves as well as the highest elevation migration of Chinook salmon and the longest steel head migration —  900 miles.

“Simpson threaded the needle with this proposal,” Gehrke says. The congressman effectively used the threat of a monument, which in a red state like Idaho was seen as too big and too restrictive. So groups like the Idaho Cattlemen Association and county commissioners figured that “on second thought this wilderness wouldn’t be such a bad idea.”

“It’s a win. It shows Congress can still function and honest efforts can still get stuff done,” Gehrke adds.

Before the victory, Simpson had not planned on making his regular multi-day hiking trip into backcountry. But now he’s considering doing some solo hiking later this month. It was on his August treks that Simpson was reminded of why fighting for a wilderness bill year after year was worth his while. In his interview this week, he recalled the thoughts that went through his head on one of those trips, when his group was camping in Quicksand Meadows, and he went out of his tent by himself at night.

“The stars were so bright you didn’t need a flash light. I was just sitting there contemplating it’s almost like you could grab them. And this goes on forever. I was trying to wrap my mind around infinity… I kept thinking of one day, not 10 years, not 20, but 100 years from now some kid will lay there and look at those stars,” Simpson recalls.  “That’s why you do this.”

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. 

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