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In Boulder-White Cloud mountains, another wilderness compromise


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Riding the middle path."

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.

Simpson is 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 college.

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 rare plants.

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 altogether.

"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 resolution."