WASHINGTON • A bill to protect more than 275,000 acres of wilderness in central Idaho is now law.
President Barack Obama signed the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act on Friday at about 10 a.m. Mountain Time.
U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who has been championing the legislation to protect the wilderness in Blaine and Custer counties for more than a decade, was in the Oval Office for the signing ceremony.
The bill passed the Senate unanimously earlier this week, and the House before that. Earlier this year, Simpson hammered out a version of the bill that won the support of Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and of snowmobilers and ATV riders, who had concerns about motorized trails being closed in earlier versions.
Obama noted that Simpson “was able to receive not a single no vote, which does not happen that often,” according to a pool press account of the signing.
Obama called Idaho “one of the prettiest states that we have with some of the greatest national treasures.” He said he was proud to sign the bill and congratulated Simpson and the other groups that worked on the bill, and urged people to visit the new wilderness area.
“This is a remarkable area,” Obama said. “It is used by fishermen, hunters, rafters, people taking hikes. It is not only beautiful, but it’s also an important economic engine for the state — attracting tourism, creating jobs.”
Representatives of a number of environmental groups were present for the signing: Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson, The Wilderness Society Idaho Regional Director Craig Gehrke, Pew Charitable Trusts project director Marcia Argust and Sawtooth Society Executive Director Robert Bonnie.
Johnson said that while a national monument proclamation would have protected more land, the Idaho Conservation League is pleased that 275,000 acres will get lasting protection.
“For decades, the Idaho Conservation League has worked to conserve the Boulder-White Clouds, working with Idahoans from all walks of life,” Johnson said in a statement after the ceremony. “In those conversations, we’ve made many concessions and compromises, because that is how the process works. After all, we all have a stake in how these lands are managed.”
Also present was Stanley City Council President Steve Botti. Stanley will get several acres of land to build summer workforce housing near the Stanley Museum as part of the bill.
So now that the bill’s signed, what changes? Nothing immediately. It’s going to take a few days for the local Forest Service to get the new boundary map of the wilderness area, said Sawtooth National Forest spokeswoman Julie Thomas.
The bill gives the Forest Service three years to develop a new management plan for the area. Thomas said that process would begin this winter. Forest Service staff will also need to get out and put up new trailhead signage, letting people know they’re entering a wilderness area.
“We are excited for Idaho and our congressional delegation,” she said. “This is really some important stuff that’s going to start happening.”
The act designates the 117,000-acre Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness, the 91,000-acre White Clouds Wilderness and the 88,000-acre Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness as wilderness. And, the Jerry’s Peak, Jerry’s Peak West, Corral-Horse Basin and Boulder Creek wilderness study areas will be released back to multiple use.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who was also present for the bill signing, praised the stakeholders who worked on it and said she hopes it inspires Congress to act on other wilderness bills.
“There are many bills pending in Congress to recognize special lands and waters across our nation that are deserving of protection, and I am hopeful that Congress will be inspired by what happened with Boulder White Clouds to move pending legislation forward expeditiously,” she said.
One group that has said they feel left out is mountain bikers. A couple of popular trails that are in the designated wilderness area will be closed to them. Some of them had been pushing for a national monument designation, instead.
Simpson told the Times-News earlier this week that there wasn’t much he could do to address their concerns — their problem is with the Wilderness Act, he said, which doesn’t allow mountain bikes in wilderness areas.
Thomas said the restrictions wouldn’t be enforced immediately, but that at some point relatively soon, signs would go up letting people know which trails are in the wilderness area.
“In the near future, things will start to be enforced,” she said. “We’ve got to learn what the boundary is.”