If Republican Rep. Mike Simpson delivers the wilderness protection that Idaho conservationists have sought for the Boulder and White Cloud mountains for more than 40 years, Sandra Mitchell will deserve part of the credit.
Mitchell, an Alaska native, has fought for Idaho motorcyclists, boaters, snowmobilers, ATVers and others who use engines to get into the backcountry for more than three decades. She’s a conservative Republican who believes that logging, mining and livestock grazing are important uses of public land.
She fought to keep jet-boater access to Hells Canyon National Recreation Area in the 1980s. She always urges responsible use by motorized recreation.
But she fiercely fought environmental groups seeking to close motorized access through wilderness designation or in rewrites of forest travel plans. These fights continue today, in hearings and courtrooms.
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Most people credit Mitchell with killing Simpson’s wilderness bill in 2010, by getting Idaho Sen. Jim Risch to withdraw his support on the eve of a Senate hearing. But when advocates of a Boulder-White Clouds national monument reached out to her and her members seeking to develop a consensus proposal, they began considering what they needed if they were going to support any change.
So when Simpson and Risch got behind a new wilderness bill, Mitchell was ready with proposals to bring her constituents on board. Simpson did similar work with ranchers, local officials and even the Idaho Farm Bureau.
Only mountain bikers, who were shut out of two areas they cherish, were left out, along with some conservationists who prefer a bigger proposal for a national monument, and other people who just didn’t want to budge.
Mountain bikers have been working closely with conservation groups for a decade seeking to protect the wild values both share.
Luther Probst, an active biker now living in Jackson, Wyo., is on the board of the International Mountain Bike Association. He was a transformative force in conservation in the early 1990s as executive director of the Sonoran Institute, working with communities to move beyond their singular resource-industry focus. He’s trying to do the same thing now, helping bring the younger mountain bike crowd together with the older generation of wilderness warriors.
He sees the current fight over the Boulder-White Clouds as an exception to that larger effort.
“This is compelling stuff,” Probst said. “There is a really strong sense of conservation ethic and personal connection to the land for these people.”
His point is very much like that of Richard Louv, the author of “Last Child in the Woods,” who coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder.” Children and humans as a whole have lost the intimate connection to nature that boomers and generations before grew up with.
The most important job of today’s generation of environmentalists is to rebuild and nurture that connection and our ties to the wild. That gets me back to Mitchell.
Her constituency has evolved over the past two decades as well. Many outdoor motorheads are like Al Youngwerth, who loves the backcountry so much that he started Rekluse, his motorcycle part manufacturing company, here in Boise.
When I interviewed him a few years ago, he made the point that his carbon footprint riding in the backcountry is less than that of someone flying to an ecotourism destination overseas.
Loggers, ranchers and even miners have the tether to nature that many urban folks have lost. It won’t be surprising if over time Mitchell and her folks find more and more common ground with Probst and his folks.