Republican Rep. Raul Labrador raised doubts Monday about the support for a wilderness bill Republican Rep. Mike Simpson has pushed for 15 years.
The bill would designate 275,665 acres in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains and the Jerry Peak area of central Idaho as wilderness.
Labrador, questioning a Forest Service official Tuesday at the House Resources Committee’s public lands subcommittee, said motorized recreation users support the bill because they fear the alternative — a national monument designation by President Barack Obama.
“The truth is, the public will is against this bill,” Labrador said.
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Simpson, testifying before Labrador arrived at the hearing, offered a long list of groups supporting his bill including the Sawtooth Society, the Custer County Commission, East Fork Ranchers, the Idaho Farm Bureau, the Idaho Cattle Association, Idaho Outfitters and Guides, the Idaho Conservation League and the Wilderness Society. He also included the Idaho Recreation Council, which Labrador argued supports the bill only because of the fear of a presidential monument designation.
Neither congressman spoke of the many groups that have expressed preference for the national monument over Simpson’s bill, including sportsman’s groups, mountain bikers and recreational businesses. Blaine County and the city of Ketchum also are on record in support of the monument, as is Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.
Republican Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo both support Simpson’s bill.
“This bill meets the needs of today’s users and resolves longstanding debates over the management of the Boulder-White Clouds,” Simpson testified. “It will end the discussion of monuments and wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds and secures the future for generations of Idahoans who want to continue using and enjoying our beautiful Boulder-White Clouds.”
IS THE MONUMENT A REAL PROPOSAL?
Both Labrador and subcommittee Chairman Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., asked Forest Service Deputy Chief Leslie Weldon if anything in this bill stops a future president from using the authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect a larger area as a national monument. Weldon’s answer was no.
Labrador also raised doubts as to the likelihood that the Obama administration would actually seek to create the monument. Weldon and BLM Deputy Director Karen Mouritsen said their agencies had not been involved in any monument mapping or studies.
“I’m not aware of any efforts to designate this area as a national monument,” Mouritsen said. “You should talk to the White House.”
In an interview with the Idaho Statesman in February, a top administration official acknowledged Obama was considering proclaiming the Boulder-White Clouds as a monument. A monument “is always going to be the president’s decision,” said Robert Bonnie, the Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment. “I think we’ll watch the process over the next several months. (Congressman) Simpson has asked for time, and that’s fair.”
A hearing already has been held on the Boulder-White Clouds proposal in the Senate. The next step is for the House and Senate committees to mark up the bills and send them to the floor for debate. Once the committees approve them, the bills also can be tacked on to other bills.
Labrador did not say whether he would vote for the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill or not. But the attorney-turned-congressman did acknowledge that he had already asked an administration official the same questions before he asked the lower-level agency representatives testifying before the subcommittee.
“Congressman Labrador has spoken to many people about this bill, including a high-ranking official in the Obama administration,” said Labrador’s press secretary, Dan Popkey. “The congressman will continue to review the bill as it moves through the process.”
Both a monument and a wilderness designation would limit some access to motorcycles, ATVs and snowmobiles. The larger monument would potentially close more trails to existing motorized uses, and the wilderness designation could mean more restrictions on mountain biking. The Wilderness Act prohibits all mechanized travel in wilderness
Sandra Mitchell is director of the Idaho Recreation Council, which represents ATV and snowmobile users. Her members’ fears of a monument cited by Labrador are justified, she said. Bonnie told her personally there was a “definite intent” in the Obama administration to protect the Boulder-White Clouds as a national monument.
“I do believe it’s high on their list of national monuments,” Mitchell said Tuesday.
Simpson’s bill would close two trails through the heart of wilderness to mountain bikes. He said the bill opens up two other loop trails to mountain bikes and doesn’t close any motorized trails. His bill, he told the House panel, should not be held up because of the mountain-biking issues.
“This bill seems to have become a proxy for a larger debate between mountain bike advocates and wilderness advocates on whether mountain bikes should be allowed in wilderness areas,” Simpson said. “That is a debate that needs to occur in the larger context of The Wilderness Act and not on this legislation.”
Simpson’s Boulder-White Clouds bill would set aside three separate wilderness areas: the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness (67,998 acres); the White Clouds Wilderness (90,769 acres); and the James A. McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness (116,898). It releases from wilderness consideration another 153,883 acres that are now wilderness study areas.
The Forest Service’s Weldon questioned the location of four acres to be transferred in the bill from the federal government to the city of Stanley for affordable housing for local workers. He said the agency wanted to identify an alternate parcel that is “appropriate for development.”
Otherwise, she and Mouritsen both offered support for the wilderness legislation.
Simpson said other parcels of land will be conveyed to Custer and Blaine counties and rural communities for public purposes such as cemeteries, water towers and waste-transfer sites. Ranchers, facing major cutbacks in grazing, would be allowed to voluntarily retire grazing allotments in exchange for money provided by a third party.
Also, grants have been provided to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area for trail maintenance and improvements; providing primitive wheelchair access to two existing trails; and for acquiring land to build a bike and snowmobile access trail between Redfish Lake and Stanley.