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/

High Country News Classifieds
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...