Wilderness cliffhanger

Three compromise bills pass the House, await Senate approval

  • Jerr Peak in the proposed Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness: These sagebrush highlands are in the lesser-known east side of the Boulder Mountains. The backpackers are facing north, looking into Herd Creek. This open country is excellent elk habitat with long ridges, waterfalls and pockets of old-growth timber.

    Ralph Maughan

On July 18 — after nearly seven years spent working to create new wilderness in Idaho’s Boulder-White Cloud Mountains — Rick Johnson hopped on a plane in Boise. He wanted to be in Washington, D.C., when the House Resources Committee, headed by Republican Rep. Richard Pombo, finally debated the proposal. But Johnson, head of the Idaho Conservation League, had made the trip to lobby for the bill more than a dozen times before, and he wasn’t optimistic that anything would happen before the House broke for its August recess.

"When I was in Boise, in the airport, we didn’t think we were getting anywhere," he says. "When I was (laid over) in Minneapolis, I said, ‘No way, it’s not gonna happen.’ I almost tried to go home."

But unbeknownst to him, machinations in the House Resources Committee were running on overtime. Three wilderness bills had converged before Pombo at the same time: the Boulder-White Clouds bill, shepherded by Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson; a bill to create new wilderness along the Northern California coast, sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.; and a bipartisan bill to expand Oregon’s Mount Hood Wilderness, sponsored by Reps. Greg Walden, R, and Earl Blumenauer, D.

That evening, just after Johnson got to his hotel room, his cell phone rang: "I found out we were on for 10 the next morning." In the following days, the wilderness bills inched their way to House approval. When Congress opens shop again in September, supporters will try to push the three bills across the legislative finish line in the Senate.

Wilderness log-rolling

The Boulder-White Clouds would be the first new wilderness in Idaho since 1980. In a state where the wilderness issue can be bitterly divisive, supporters needed a carefully-crafted compromise: The bill designates 310,000 acres of wilderness while allowing snowmobiling, four-wheeling and mountain biking to continue in a separate, 500,000-acre "management area." It also transfers some federal land to local communities for economic development.

The package has critics on both sides: Many snowmobilers say it "locks up" too much land, and some wilderness advocates say it makes too many concessions to local counties and motorized-vehicle users. But for Simpson, passing the bill has become a personal quest (HCN, 11/22/04: Conservationist in a Conservative Land).

Getting it to the floor of the House, however, meant placating Pombo — one of Congress’ staunchest opponents of wilderness (HCN, 7/25/05: Will the real Mr. Pombo please stand up?). And Pombo insisted that Simpson delete a $7 million provision allowing local ranchers sell their grazing permits back to the federal government. Pombo sided with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which generally opposes grazing buyouts.

The buyout provision was a key concession to ranchers, and people close to the deal speculate that Pombo’s insistence on deleting it was a setup intended to derail the bill altogether.

"We’d worked a long time on that provision," says Lindsay Slater, Simpson’s chief of staff. But in the end, dropping it "became necessary if we wanted to get the bill passed." With that, congressional members from each party pledged to support both Simpson’s "Republican" bill and Rep. Thompson’s "Democrat" bill to designate 273,000 acres of wilderness in Northern California.

With momentum building, those bills and the bipartisan Oregon bill were shepherded onto the fast-track "suspension calendar" for a vote in the full House. That requires only a voice vote for approval, but any single legislator could request a recorded vote, which could delay — or entirely nix — passage. It took a careful agreement and some last-minute diplomacy to ensure that neither party would challenge the other’s bill on the floor, but on July 24, the House passed all three bills.

An uncertain future

The bills must still run the gantlet in the Senate after it reconvenes on Sept. 5. The prospects for the California bill are good: The Senate actually passed its own version of the bill last year, so all that remains is to reconcile the two. The prospects for the Oregon bill are fairly good: Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden, D, and Gordon Smith, R, have expressed support for the 77,500-acre Mount Hood proposal — but a land-trade provision in the bill that would allow the Cooper Spur ski area to expand may not have been properly appraised, and is raising red flags in the Senate (HCN, 11/22/04: Freewheeling wilderness proposal irks purists).

But the Boulder-White Clouds bill is another story. Its fate depends entirely on Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, who chairs the subcommittee on forests and public lands and essentially serves as the gatekeeper to the Senate. Craig’s press secretary, Dan Whiting, says the senator plans a hearing on Simpson’s wilderness bill in September. But Craig has steadfastly refused to say whether he supports it. And he is holding a dozen "town meetings" to hear from his constituents this month — raising wilderness advocates’ fear of another setup.

"We’ve polled the blazes out of this" and found overwhelming support for protecting the Boulder-White Clouds, says Rick Johnson. Both former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who now heads the U.S. Department of the Interior, and his successor, Jim Risch, have endorsed the bill. Rep. Simpson even publicly berated Rep. Butch Otter, R, who is running for Idaho governor, for not supporting it — a remarkable move, given that that Simpson co-chairs Otter’s campaign committee.

But with Craig still officially undecided, the snowmobile community is preparing to turn out in force at the town meetings. "There’s way too many acres of (proposed) wilderness that are prime recreational lands," says Sandra Mitchell, public-lands director for the Idaho State Snowmobile Association.

That opposition, for better or worse, kicks the ball back into the wilderness advocates’ court. Bart Koehler, the director of The Wilderness Society’s Wilderness Support Center, says Craig is putting "the burden of proof on our side. It’s going to require people in Idaho who care about wilderness to all be there."

The author is West Coast correspondent for High Country News.

For a schedule of Sen. Larry Craig’s town meetings in Idaho this month, go to craig.senate.gov/schedule/

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