WASHINGTON — Wilderness advocates and Idaho lawmakers asked Congress on Wednesday for continued negotiation and collaboration on sweeping legislation that would designate more than 300,000 acres of land in the Boulder-White Clouds mountain ranges as wilderness.
But advocates for recreation enthusiasts argued that the legislation was unnecessary, with much of the land already under federal protection, and would hamper motorized recreation in the land.
Championed by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act — CIEDRA — has been hailed as a compromise. But both supporters and opponents of the measure acknowledged during a hearing by the public lands and forests subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee that the bill is far from perfect.
"As I understand it, however, there are still some pending issues that are going to need, perhaps, some more of that collaborative process to reach this consensus," said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who sits on the subcommittee. "I'm interested today in hearing how we are going to get there."
Rick Johnson, the executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, said his wilderness activist group already has accepted "hard-to-swallow" parts of the bill, and he is ready to see the bill move forward with compromises on each interest's behalf. Johnson pointed to the widespread support of the bill in Idaho, citing a poll that found respondents favored the bill by a 2-to-1 margin when they knew its provisions. The poll was commissioned by the Idaho Conservation League and administrated by a Republican pollster to 400 respondents.
However, Bill Dart, a representative of the Idaho Recreation Council, said he doesn't think the measure is necessary, as much of the area that would be designated as wilderness is already protected by the National Recreation Act, which guards the land from mining and logging.
"Our first major point is that this legislation is not necessary to protect and preserve the Boulder-White Clouds landscape," Dart told the panel. "It's already very well protected and has been for 38 years."
While giving credit to Simpson for his hard work toward consensus, Dart lamented the difference between the 2001 House version of the bill the Senate's current version, SB 3294.
"The bill has been dramatically changed, stripped of most of the compromise language," he said. The Idaho Recreation Council released a poll in April that found of Republican respondents, 70 percent opposed the bill because of restrictions placed on motorized recreationists.
The Senate version would preserve 332,775 acres as wilderness, catering to the environmentalist and wilderness protection coalitions. Off-road enthusiasts would retain access to a key trail, the Germania Creek trail in the Sun Valley area. Restrictions on thousands of additional acres would be relaxed.
Steve Wolper, a member of the Campaign to Save the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, who was not at the hearing, said from Ketchum that the bill is far better than the original but that major issues like a motorized corridor cutting between two wilderness areas needs to be addressed.
"We're not against the bill. We were opposed to the original bill but we want to see this bill passed. We just want to see them address these issues," Wolper said.
During his testimony, Simpson reiterated his commitment to work with the various interests that have stakes in the outcome of the bill. Despite criticism from motorized recreation enthusiasts who fear the measure would limit their use of land and environmentalists that claim the bill doesn't go far enough, Simpson said his bill protects Idaho's land for its people.
"The people live and recreate in this area are just important as the lines we draw on a map," Simpson said.
The hearing came only a day after Gov. Butch Otter voiced his opposition to the bill in a letter to Risch and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
"My opposition to CIEDRA and additional wilderness areas in Idaho should not surprise anyone. I recognize the need for economic development in Custer County, Clayton, and the surrounding communities, but remain unconvinced that the answer is more wilderness acres and federal red-tape," the letter said.
Otter's Democratic opponent, Keith Allred, quickly released a statement proclaiming his support for the bill and condemning Otter for offering only last-minute suggestions for change.
"The Boulder-White Clouds are one of my favorite places on earth. I endorse the CIEDRA legislation because it provides wise protections for this extraordinary region so that future generations can enjoy it as my family has," Allred's statement said. "If Otter were serious about his suggestions for changes to CIEDRA, he would have made those suggestions for changes to CIEDRA public long before now."