One of the greatest shows in Idaho political history can now be seen at a forum near you. The players are familiar to Idahoans, and the subject matter is as old as dirt. But watching the unlikely backers of the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA) try to keep their troupe together is worth the price of admission time and time again.
There's U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, backslapping Republican, proclaiming the virtues of untrammeled wilderness. With him is former Idaho governor and Democratic pillar Cecil Andrus, slapping Simpson one back and declaring that it's time for change. Further adding to the psychedelic aura is Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, praising the efforts of Simpson and challenging his former allies at the Sierra Club. If successful, the trio will have created something Idaho hasn't seen in decades: a new wilderness area out of one of Idaho's most cherished hunk of alpine country, the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains.
But to get 300,000 acres of wilderness, Simpson and his allies are willing to hand off thousands of acres of public land to private hands and change forever the rules of the land-management experiment known as the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Doing so, even with the support of rural Idaho county leaders and other members of this unlikely coalition, would write a radical new chapter in Idaho's conservation and political history. It would also infuriate a growing group of wilderness boosters who believe Simpson, Andrus and Johnson are doing irreparable harm to wilderness and the legal fabric that protects it.
"(Simpson) has just put one lightning rod after another into this bill," said Janine Blaeloch, the director of the Western Lands Project in Seattle and an opponent of the bill. The measure's controversial tradeoffs, Blaeloch said, have injected "a lot of bad blood" into Idaho's conservation community.
The bugbear for conservationists in Simpson's bill is the same thing that nearly cost U.S. Rep. Butch Otter his chance at becoming Idaho's next Republican governor. When Otter signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill to sell public lands to finance Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, he prompted a firestorm of criticism from the public and newspaper editors. With his hands still chapped from the smacking they received, Otter quickly published a mea culpa and rescinded his support for the notion of selling off public land.
Simpson is proposing something even more direct with CIEDRA and getting praise for it. He plans to give away thousands of acres, including 162 acres of valuable Sawtooth Valley elk wintering range, to local communities like Stanley, to allow for more development in the valley. The bill is loaded with provisions that infuriate many lovers of the Sawtooths, including a coterie of retired SNRA rangers and managers who hate the way the bill alters protection of land outside the proposed wilderness maps.
"To achieve wilderness, you shouldn't be slicing and dicing public lands," said Scott Phillips, a retired SNRA ranger in Hailey. Joining Phillips are off-road vehicle opponents, who hate that the bill allows ORV-use through pristine country. Wildlife lovers point out the bill has no language for protection of endangered salmon. Still other wilderness lovers hate the bill's exclusion of the western side of the Boulder-White Clouds from wilderness designation.
"This is not the bill I would write if I were king for a day," Simpson said. "But I have to be seen as an honest broker on both sides."
The giveaways have sparked a series of dustups, most recently involving a discrepancy over just how many acres are in the deal. Simpson estimates publicly "between 2,000 and 3,000" acres of public land would change hands. That estimate has been repeated by editorial writers for the Idaho Statesman in their support for the bill.
But when she looked at maps and read the bill, Blaeloch came away with something more like 7,000 acres worth of giveaways. When she and other opponents of the bill published a critical ad in the Statesman with those estimates, Simpson accused them of misleading readers.
But, Blaeloch said, the numbers came from Simpson's office. In a December e-mail exchange with Laurel Hall, one of Simpson's natural resources advisers, Blaeloch offered her estimate of 7,392 acres. In a quick note back, Hall confirmed that Blaeloch's numbers reflected the proposed acreage in the bill. By last week, however, Simpson's office had a different answer to acreage questions.
"We cannot give an exact number because we're still working with the counties," said Nikki Watts, a Simpson spokeswoman.
"This is the most egregious situation, when a bill just lacks the basic information," Blaeloch said. But with the bill looking at a possible markup before the House Natural Resources Committee within this month or next, time is of the essence.
Time is what wears on Rick Johnson these days. He's made a career of fighting bills that change land-management policies, but he is unconvinced of that strategy's success. In the 25 years that have passed since the last Idaho wilderness bill, Johnson said, Idaho wilderness defenders have forgotten what it's like to get wilderness protected, painful compromises and all. "That means the people who live there and work there have to support it," Johnson said. "It's not how you build a civil society, by rolling people. You just can't, even if I wanted to."
But although Simpson, Andrus and Johnson each find things in CIEDRA that make them wince, they are prepared to take the bill the final haul, against the wishes of some former allies and with the support of others, including the Wilderness Society, which is backing the measure.
"As Mike Simpson has said, being in the middle is not the worst place to be," Johnson said. "If nothing else, it's important that people are talking about wilderness again."
Simpson's chances aren't bad, observers note. A Republican pushing a wilderness bill, one supported by local communities like Custer County and opposed by national environmental groups like the Sierra Club, is the sort of animal that might be welcomed in Washington just now.
The only question now is whether another consolidation of Idahoans and others can counter the bill's current momentum with their own.