Wilderness bill is a test for common-sense conservation in Idaho


For solitude and inspiration, we seek out wilderness on our public lands, where the road ends and the trail begins, where, by law, we leave our mechanized contrivances and walk, float or ride in on horseback. Wilderness, a gift of nature, remains today because of laws, and where protective laws don’t yet exist, the values of wilderness are as impermanent as spring snow.

To protect wilderness, Congress has to act together, in bipartisan majority, to pass a law. This is a major task anytime, but more so in these polarized times. Before a wilderness bill succeeds in Congress, majority support must also be gained in the home state, community by community, for deeply rooted legislative tradition requires support of the home state’s congressional delegation before a bill can move forward.

This is not to suggest that wilderness politics are simple, and in 20 years of advocacy in Idaho, I’ve learned how hard it is to build majority support for wilderness. Wilderness politics are so challenging and difficult in Idaho, in fact, that no new law has passed Congress in over 25 years.

Remarkably, a wilderness bill now before Congress has gained support from 60 percent of the Idaho public, including a majority of Democrats, Independents and Republicans in this very Republican state.

The bill was written by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and by any definition it is a compromise, a delicate balance among competing interests and traditional antagonists. The bill protects an Idaho crown jewel, the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains, by designating over 300,000 acres as wilderness. To help rural communities with little private land, a total of 2,000 acres of federal is proposed for transfer to two counties and four towns. The bill also provides a means of removing grazing from the proposed wilderness, and it protects designated trails outside the wilderness for motorized recreation.

The bill has detractors, to be sure, yet in addition to majority support from Idaho’s public, it has the bipartisan support of former Idaho leaders, such as Gov. Cecil Andrus and Sen. James McClure, as well as Bethine Church, wife of the late wilderness champion, Sen. Frank Church.

As I write this, I’m preparing to testify before a House subcommittee in support of the bill. While I have serious reservations about some provisions, I also know the Boulder-White Clouds very well, from iconic Castle Peak to the headwaters of four rivers. I know of the extraordinary wildlife here, from the high-peak mountain goats to the valley-bottom salmon -- fish that are severely threatened and yet survive here, nearly 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean. I believe the new Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness would be great for this land, and passing this bill would be good for Idaho and the future of common-sense conservation.

Many of my environmental colleagues are deeply concerned about the trade-offs Rep. Simpson has judged necessary to get local support for wilderness. I, too, have concerns about this legislation, such as the gift of some parcels of public land to Custer County, and the permanent protection to motors of certain trails outside the wilderness. But my dislike for these provisions is outweighed by my concern about our failure to pass a wilderness bill for Idaho in over 25 years, and the growing divide between conservationists and people in our rural communities. Each year that we fail to act to preserve the land, the damage from motorized intrusions increases.

Rep. Simpson and I don’t agree on a lot, but we do agree that this is the best shot we’ve ever had to protect a special part of Idaho, and that doing it this way provides something for each group at the table.

Mike Simpson has helped me — a lifelong wilderness advocate — learn to stop talking and start listening, to pause and realize that the differences between many of us are not that great. We all love the land, even if some of us want to use it in different ways. When it comes to appreciating an Idaho sunset or the charge that comes from a cutthroat trout on the line, there really isn’t much difference between Republicans and Democrats.

I’m going to Washington, D.C., this week to speak in support of a wilderness bill I never would have written myself. But working with Idaho residents on this bill over the years has taught me about the folly of absolutism and the wisdom of cooperation. I’ve also come to understand the hunger people have for government that actually gets something done.

Rick Johnson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, based in Boise.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].