A hundred miles north of the Owyhee Canyonlands, another bold wilderness deal is brewing in Idaho, and the brewmaster is another conservative Republican congressman.
"We have a rare opportunity to control our
own destiny, by crafting our own legislation that fits our needs,
without staring down the barrel of (any future Clintonesque actions
in Washington, D.C.)," says Rep. Mike Simpson.
close to announcing the terms of a bill that would designate about
250,000 acres of wilderness in the Boulder Mountains and the White
Cloud Peaks, between the booming resort of Sun Valley and the
small, remote town of Challis on the Salmon River. The bill is the
culmination of two years of talks with environmentalists and locals
in Custer County, where Challis is the county seat. The trade-offs
built into it are advertised in its title: The Central Idaho
Economic Development and Recreation Act.
If the deal
holds, it will hand the county several thousand acres of federal
land — isolated tracts not considered important for wildlife
— which could then be sold for homesites and other economic
development. Simpson wants the sale proceeds, along with additional
money from the federal government, to be used to create a new
Central Idaho Education Center, which would stimulate the local
economy by offering a suite of higher-education services from
Idaho’s universities, and perhaps from a vocational
The Idaho Conservation League — the lead
negotiators for the environmentalists’ side — and the
BlueRibbon Coalition, which represents off-road vehicle users, both
see benefits in the deal. It would end a stalemate on a wilderness
study area that was established nearly 30 years ago, on land that
is a haven for many sensitive species, including wolves, lynx,
wolverines, fishers, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bull trout, and
And in sprawling, Connecticut-sized Custer
County, the deal couldn’t too come soon. Like many rural
Idahoans, the county’s 4,300 residents struggle to get by.
Mines that once provided jobs have closed, or are winding down. Net
income from farming and ranching has plummeted 80 percent since
1970, according to the Sonoran Institute think tank. The tax base
is also choked off, with 95 percent of the land in the county owned
by the federal government. The nearest post-high-school classes are
a couple of hours’ drive away.
"For us, education is
the key to economic development," says Gynii Gilliam, a local
economic development official.
The education center could
host conventions and serve as a base for wildland scientists,
Gilliam says. And the new wilderness area could bring more visitors
to the rest of Custer County; nearby Sawtooth National Recreation
Area now attracts 1.5 million tourists each summer.
Simpson’s bill would protect only half of the total 500,000
roadless acres in the area, which is said to be the largest
roadless area in the Lower 48. Snowmobilers and ATVs would have
increased access to the unprotected land. The bill would authorize
land trades and buyouts to reduce conflicts over grazing. But some
of the most controversial wildland — prized, for different
reasons, by both sides — has been left out of it
"I have mixed feelings about the bill. I want
to see wilderness there, but don’t want to pay too high a
price for it," says Jerry Jayne, a director of the Idaho
Environmental Council. Jayne doesn’t like giving away federal
land and increasing ATV access, and says more of the roadless land
needs to protected.
But Bart Koehler, director of The
Wilderness Society’s Wilderness Support Center in Durango,
Colo., says, "This is Idaho’s time in the sun. You
can’t be afraid of your shadow. You can’t be reckless,
but you should do everything possible to strive for a workable