Sought-after protection for Central Idaho mountains advances on two fronts

As the House Natural Resources Committee was sending Republican Rep. Mike Simpson’s Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill to the full House this week, mountain bikers and other advocates for protecting an even larger area as a national monument were riding and rallying.

Then on Friday the Obama administration designated three new national monuments: the 700,000-plus acre Basin and Range monument, about two hours north of Las Vegas; the 331,000-acre Berryessa Snow Mountain monument in Northern California; and the Waco Mammoth monument in Texas.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who pushed the Basin and Range monument, said Obama can still do more.

“He has used his authority under the Antiquities Act to do great things all over the country and he’s not done yet,” Reid said. “There are vast landscapes and historic treasures from Idaho to California to Oregon that have languished in Congress.”

Simpson’s wilderness bill, dead until 2014 when Republican Sen. Jim Risch got on board, is not languishing right now. Simpson, a close associate of House Speaker John Boehner, hopes to get his bill passed by the House quickly with a suspension of the rules and a simple voice vote. The bill has the support of nearly every Idaho interest group, from Custer County ranchers to motorcyclists and snowmobilers to the Wilderness Society and the Idaho Conservation League.

Though he supports Simpson’s legislation, Idaho Conservation League Rick Johnson continues to push for the monument as well.

“We’ve traveled this path before,” Johnson said. “The U.S. Senate is not run the way you learned in government class. If (it were), this would have passed years ago.”

The Obama administration gave Simpson six months to get his bill passed, and that time is just about up. Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus called on Obama to act by proclaiming a national monument in the area he has fought to protect since his first gubernatorial campaign in 1970. “Tell them to get moving,” Andrus told the Idaho Statesman.

The administration isn’t commenting.

“The key thing about right now is not about whether” a wilderness or a monument is created for the Boulder-White Clouds, Johnson said. “The key thing is to get it done.”

That’s not how the International Mountain Bike Association and Aaron Clark, its conservation manager, sees it. The Castle Divide and Ant’s Basin trails in the heart of the White Clouds would be closed to bikes if Simpson’s wilderness bill passes.

The monument proposal, as presented by conservationists and outdoor industry groups to the Obama administration, would keep those trails open while protecting the wild character of the 275,665 acres Simpson would designation as wilderness.

“This is the only access bill in Congress we oppose,” said Clark, who rode into the proposed monument area Friday. “We’ve have been instrumental in pushing for wilderness bills across the West.”

The rally included representatives of the Sierra Club, which has relentlessly lobbied the administration for the monument. On Thursday, as its members were sitting around the campfire with the mountain bikers, the Sierra Club announced support for Simpson’s bill.

“We’re going to push on all fronts,” said Dan Chu, a senior program director for the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C.

Advocates for snowmobilers, motorcyclists and ATVs have met repeatedly with the administration, but have not supported a Boulder-White Clouds national monument, preferring Simpson’s bill. But that could change if the bill falters.

The Blue Ribbon Coalition, which represents motorized recreation groups nationally, hailed Obama’s designation of the Berryessa area, which will preserve their access.

“If you would have told me 10 years ago I would support any national monument, I would have said it was more likely that hell would freeze over,” said Don Amador, Blue Ribbon Coalition representative.

Risch said he is confident he can get the Boulder-White Clouds bill approved in the Senate. Johnson said it was Risch’s hard work that got the bill a committee hearing earlier this year, but he’s not sure Risch can get it through the many obstacles it faces.