WASHINGTON, D.C. • A bill to protect the Boulder-White Clouds finally cleared the Senate on Tuesday, a triumph for Rep. Mike Simpson after championing the cause for nearly his entire congressional career.
“It’s nice to actually get this done,” said Simpson, an Idaho Republican. “It’s a huge victory for Idaho and Idahoans.”
The Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act would prohibit development in about 276,000 acres of wilderness in Blaine and Custer counties. Having cleared both chambers, it now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.
“I have every reason to believe the president will sign it,” Simpson said. “The administration supported it in both the House and Senate.”
Simpson worked for 15 years to obtain a wilderness designation for the area, but his previous bills had stalled amid opposition from Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho. This year Simpson introduced a bill that shrunk the wilderness area by about 37,000 acres and kept some motorized trails intact. Risch sponsored the bill and helped shepherd it through his chamber.
“Sen. Risch did a remarkable job in the Senate, getting this passed in the Senate in the manner that he did,” Simpson said. “It was legislative leadership in its highest order.”
Some environmental and recreation groups have called on Obama to protect the area by declaring it a national monument and designating more than twice the size of the area protected under Simpson’s bill. That includes several groups that had originally supported Simpson’s plan but grew frustrated when it stalled.
In the end, those concerns may have helped foster Simpson’s plan through Congress.
“The threat of a national monument, I think, convinced a lot of people it was better to have an Idaho solution than one imposed by Washington, D.C.,” Simpson said.
Working out a bill that addressed the concerns of snowmobilers and ATV riders, while also keeping the support of groups like the Idaho Conservation League and the Wilderness Society, was the second big factor in getting the bill passed, he said.
“That’s kind of what a compromise is,” Simpson said. “It’s trying to find that sweet spot.”
Risch released a statement Tuesday touting the Boulder-White Clouds, which he called “one of the most remarkable places in the world,” and the large coalition of supporters of the bill.
“I am glad to see that every one of my Senate colleagues agreed and supported this Idaho bill,” Risch said.
Shortly after the bill cleared the Senate, Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson wrote an ecstatic blog post thanking Risch and Simpson. He also said the support for a national monument from groups such as his and from people such as former Gov. Cecil Andrus helped to get Simpson’s bill through.
“From our perspective, this wilderness bill could have been stronger,” Johnson said in a statement. “The national monument proclamation ICL and others have been working towards over the last three years would have protected more acreage. However, we understand that legislation requires compromise. The conservation community had to give some – and so did the other stakeholders. At the end of the day, we are pleased that one of Idaho’s most pristine wildernesses gets the lasting protection it deserves.”
State Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, whose district includes Blaine County, said that while he was opposed to any wilderness designation, the current bill at least limits the size of the protected area and preserves more access than the previous versions.
“I’d rather see it left alone and not have done anything,” he said, “but if this bill got us the best of the alternatives left, then it is what it is.”
But his fellow Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, would have preferred the previous version that protected more land, but she was glad something passed.
“I’m looking for as much protection as possible, but this is good,” Pence said. “I’m satisfied with what this is.”
Pence hopes the concerns of mountain bikers, who will lose access to some trails they use now by the wilderness designation, could be addressed. The Wood River Bicycle Coalition had been pushing for a monument designation, rather than wilderness, for this reason.
State Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said she worked with proponents of both the wilderness bill and of a national monument to ensure that Idahoans’ interests would be represented no matter what happened.
“I’m pleased that after 14 years of effort, primarily on Simpson’s part, we were able to pass something that had a lot of public interaction and that the congressman had worked so hard on,” she said.
‘A Huge Leap Forward’
The group Sportsmen for Boulder-White Clouds praised the bill’s passage, saying that it protects some of Idahos best alpine big-game habitat. But more needs to be done to protect the watershed of the East Fork of the Salmon River and its salmon and steelhead spawning area, the group said. This would have been included in a national monument.
“Although we made a huge leap forward today, it is critical that Idaho sportsmen and women continue working to provide protections for that area,” Michael Gibson, the group’s outreach coordinator, said in a statement.
The Sawtooth Society lauded the bill’s passage in a statement:
“This is truly a great day for the people of Idaho and for everyone who loves the Sawtooth NRA (National Recreation Area) and it permanently preserves and protects these unique lands with the gold standard of protection — wilderness.”