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. 

High Country News Classifieds
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.