In the waning days of the Bush administration, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne prepared draft proclamations for President George W. Bush to issue the declaration for two of Idaho's most scenic areas. He saw his monument study as a natural step in his conservation legacy. As Boise's mayor, Kempthorne helped protect Hull's Gulch. As Idaho governor, he began the state's roadless national forest review and sought to expand state parks.
Interior documents obtained by the Idaho Statesman show that Kempthorne pushed Mesa Falls protection into December 2008 before deciding that he didn't have the time to build local support.
Kempthorne eventually backed off recommending the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in Central Idaho and the caldera plateau around Mesa Falls as national monuments.
Fast-forward to 2013. In March, President Barack Obama designated five national monuments using the powers of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives the president the ability to create monuments with the stroke of a pen.
His action gave conservation groups hope that his administration will reconsider the areas Kempthorne recommended to Bush.
Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson was in Washington last week lobbying on behalf of the 500,000-acre Boulder-White Clouds and Mesa Falls.
"If a Republican administration had been considering such a thing, it's not far-fetched to think a Democratic administration might not pick up the ball and carry it down the field," said Boise State University political science professor John Freemuth, who follows public lands issues.
TALKING TO THE DELEGATION
Kempthorne told the Statesman last week that back in 2008, he didn't want to recommend the Boulder-White Clouds and the Owyhee Canyonlands unless sponsors of separate bills to protect the areas - Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen. Mike Crapo, respectively - approved.
Crapo and Simpson both told Kempthorne that they were confident they could get their bills through Congress, so they said no to monuments.
But only Crapo got his bill passed, designating 512,000 acres of wilderness and 315 miles of wild and scenic rivers. Simpson's bill stalled in Congress.
At the time, Simpson consulted with the ICL's Johnson, who agreed with Simpson's decision to turn Kempthorne down.
Today, after working for nearly three decades to protect the Boulder-White Clouds, Johnson said he'd rather not wait for a divided Congress to act when he has the ear of a friendly administration.
"Last time I said no," Johnson said. "This time I'm saying yes."
Simpson worked to line up independent funding for most of the economic development portions of his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, under which the Boulder-White Clouds would become wilderness. But he's yet to persuade Congress to place more than 330,000 acres in wilderness, where no motorized use or development would be allowed.
For years Simpson has pushed his bill as a compromise in a roadless area criss-crossed by trails used by motorcyclists and snowmobilers.
If Obama were to designate the area as a national monument, the president won't be bound to follow those same boundaries or compromises.
"For over a decade, I've said if we don't determine our own destiny in the Boulder-White Clouds, it will be determined for us," said Simpson.
"While I'm not surprised there is a push for a national monument designation, I still believe it would be better to pass legislation such as I have offered to solve this longtime debate."
Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus has been calling for monument designation for the Boulder-White Clouds for several years. Andrus, another Idaho governor who served as Interior Department secretary, persuaded President Jimmy Carter to designate 100 million acres of Alaska as national monuments, leading Congress to approve the 104 million-acre Alaska Lands Act in 1980.
KEMPTHORNE STUDIED OTHER IDAHO AREAS
In addition to the Owyhees, the Boulder-White Clouds and Mesa Falls, Kempthorne had the Bureau of Land Management look at several other Idaho areas as possible monuments, said Jim Caswell, who led the monument studies for him.
Those areas included the Bonanza-Custer area near Sunbeam, north of Stanley; the South Fork of the Snake River; the Lemhi Range near Salmon; the Lower Salmon River near Riggins; the Lewis and Clark Trail; and Grandmother Mountain near Kellogg.
Caswell, who lives in Emmett, is the former director of the Idaho Office of Species Conservation. Kempthorne appointed him director of the Bureau of Land Management in 2007. As supervisor of the Targhee National Forest, Caswell helped protect and improve public access to Mesa Falls. He led the Idaho roadless national forest initiative under Govs. Kempthorne and Jim Risch.
All of these Idaho study areas had issues that made them hard to recommend as monuments, Caswell said. But the Mesa Falls proposal looked promising.
Upper and Lower Mesa Falls are on the Henry's Fork of the Snake River near Ashton. The 114-foot-high Upper Falls is 300 feet wide, dropping 11 stories off a sheer cliff. The lower falls is 85 feet high.
Mesa Falls lies within the Island Park Caldera, a smaller version of the exploded volcano that underlies adjacent Yellowstone National Park. It's a major geologic feature with its own hot springs connected to Yellowstone's geysers. The trout fishing at Henry's Lake and the river itself are known worldwide.
"It is a special place," Kempthorne said. "It's a treasure. Nobody can argue that."
Caswell proposed in October 2008 that Kempthorne recommend all of the public land of the caldera - about 700,000 acres - as a monument.
"If we're really going to do this, let's do what makes the most sense," Caswell said he told Kempthorne. "Throw a loop around the whole caldera."
The area has had no major timber industry since the early 1990s. Conservation groups bought out all of the grazing privileges for public land in the area to protect the grizzly bear that live there, Caswell said.
"It's being managed for recreation now almost by default," he said.
There also is a lot of private land in the area, including the elongated city of Island Park along U.S. 20. Harriman State Park and the Island Park Reservoir also lie within the caldera.
GOING TO THE PEOPLE
In 2008, Kempthorne urged Caswell to continue working on the plan.
Kempthorne sought to put together a unique panel of stakeholders to manage the monument. Kempthorne compares the proposed oversight to the Idaho Roadless Commission that Caswell chairs. It reviews Forest Service actions in the state's nearly 9 million acres of roadless national forest
The Henry's Fork Watershed Council that was formed initially by the Henry's Fork Foundation and the Fremont-Madison Irrigation District also was an inspiration. Kempthorne saw the monument as a way to promote the Bush administration's theme of collaboration.
"You have got to go to the local people first," Kempthorne said. "Collaboration prevents litigation."
Kempthorne said the caldera area is Idaho's best section of greater Yellowstone, and an area that Idahoans love. He said he would tell new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to develop a good public process - a "treasured process" that lives up to the landscape.
"Done appropriately and properly, with the involvement of the people, it could be truly significant," Kempthorne said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484