Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson and Idaho Conservation League Director Rick Johnson were sitting in The Mayflower Hotel’s dining room in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 14, 2014, before the rest of the guests filed in for a gala celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
President Barack Obama’s point man on his national monument campaign, John Podesta, was led to Simpson’s table. “I hear you want to talk about BWC,” Podesta said, chuckling.
Simpson, a conservative Republican, had just won a landslide victory in a high-stakes primary campaign against a tea party candidate funded by the Club for Growth. He had spent the last 15 years working to try to protect the iconic Boulder-White Clouds and came to the gala as Johnson’s guest.
Simpson told Podesta that he planned to make another run at his bill to protect the area as wilderness and that he wanted Obama to give him six months in 2015 to get it passed.
“He told me to go for it,” Simpson said.
Even though Obama administration officials had been privately telling conservationists, local officials and even motorized recreation advocates that they were working on a Boulder-White Clouds national monument, many people were skeptical.
But when Idaho Sen. Jim Risch abruptly killed Simpson’s wilderness bill in 2010 after introducing it in the Senate, former Interior Secretary and Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus — who convinced President Jimmy Carter to proclaim millions of acres of Alaska as national monuments in 1978 — wrote Obama and called on him to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to force action for the Boulder-White Clouds.
When it became clear in 2013 that Simpson’s bill still had no chance, Johnson and other conservation partners such as Craig Gehrke, Idaho representative of The Wilderness Society, shifted their campaign to Andrus’ national monument proposal. By September 2014 they had built a huge coalition of outdoor businesses, recreation groups, hunters, anglers and local governments, including Ketchum and Blaine County, pushing for the monument.
Still, Simpson told Podesta that many in Idaho didn’t think the administration was serious.
“The threat is real,” Podesta replied.
That night, Podesta told the crowd that the president “still has ink in his signing pen” for more national monuments, and he pointed to Simpson’s table, “so Mike, hurry and get your bill passed.”
Obama used that pen Friday to sign a bill protecting 275,000-plus acres in three wilderness areas of Central Idaho. It came less than six months after Simpson and Risch introduced identical bills in the House and Senate.
“This is a remarkable area. It is used by fishermen, hunters, rafters, people taking hikes. It is not only beautiful, but it’s also an important economic engine for the state — attracting tourism, creating jobs,” Obama said during the signing. “We want to urge the American people to visit these new, incredible wilderness areas, and recognize that not only will this give opportunities to people in Idaho, but it’s going to be there for future generations as well.”
Simpson and Johnson on Friday were standing in the bill-signing crowd along with others who had traveled the long road since Simpson first addressed the Idaho Conservation League’s Wild Idaho gathering in 1999 and flew over Castle Peak in the White Clouds. Simpson told Obama that Johnson has worked to protect the area for 30 years. “Personally?” Obama said. “This must be a big day for you.”
ONE MORE TRY
Simpson was confident he could do this time what he had been blocked from doing in 2006 and 2010. The eight-term congressman had developed strong relationships in both the House and the Senate and was a close confidant of House Speaker John Boehner.
Simpson was the chairman of a key Appropriations subcommittee, a cardinal in political slang, who had wide influence over federal land and environmental agencies. He and Johnson built a strong personal relationship, and Simpson often used Johnson as his go-between to national environmental interests who did not like Simpson’s challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency or his budget cuts.
Simpson’s and Johnson’s joint quest began in 2000 when Simpson hired Lindsay Slater, a former Oregon Cattlemen’s Association staffer who had carried the Steens Mountain Wilderness bill through Congress for Republican Rep. Greg Walden. Now Simpson’s chief of staff, Slater’s main job was to get the Boulder-White Clouds protected as wilderness.
But Johnson’s monument campaign was going forward without Simpson, and Johnson was not happy that Simpson had convinced Podesta to delay the designation. Johnson and his allies wanted the area protected, and the monument was the most certain method, even if it meant less protection.
“We were taken to task for that,” said Marcia Argust of The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C. “(Simpson) asked us why would you give up on wilderness protection — a higher level of protection for the landscape?”
The rest of the Idaho delegation had shopped a letter against the national monument designation pushed by the Idaho Farm Bureau and others, a punch in the face of Johnson’s campaign.
Simpson refused to go along.
“I didn’t want a national monument, but I didn’t want to rule out a national monument,” he said. “If I can’t get a bill crafted by Idaho, the next best thing was a monument.”
A NEW ALLY
Risch went from simply opposing the monument to becoming Simpson’s most important ally. He credits the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board for the change of heart. It happened at the newspaper’s endorsement interview with Risch in October, when it asked Risch why he didn’t introduce his own Boulder-White Clouds bill if he didn’t like Simpson’s.
That question “was a pivotal moment in the Boulder-White Clouds (debate),” Risch said. “My dissatisfaction with my own answer really made me rethink where we should go with the issue.”
Risch cleared his schedule for a day and began talking to local officials, agriculture groups and Sandra Mitchell, executive director of the Idaho Recreation Council, which represented motorized recreation. He asked them what it would take for them to support Simpson.
“Leave our trails out of the wilderness,” Mitchell said she told him.
Mitchell and the other groups had already been talking with Johnson, who with Gehrke had been gathering comments from all sides since 2013 for the monument proposal. They had reached an agreement with mountain bikers to keep all their trails open, and Mitchell’s supporters were hopeful they might get the same treatment in the wilderness bill.
Mitchell’s and Johnson’s groups had clashed repeatedly over the years and the two leaders had spoken rarely before the monument talks. But they were beginning to trust and even like each other.
“When you get to know someone, I think you see beyond the issues to the person,” Mitchell said.
In early January, Risch called Simpson and went to his office to talk.
“He told me he thought we could get this done but I had to go out and meet with a lot of people,” Simpson said.
GETTING IT DONE
Simpson took his advice and, with chief of staff Lindsay Slater by his side, traveled around the area talking to Custer County officials, ranchers, Stanley city leaders, the Idaho Farm Bureau and Mitchell. When he was done, they wrote a new bill that put back in land transfers for low-income housing, cemeteries, water towers and waste-transfer sites.
The bill, introduced Feb. 26, also left all of the motorized trails and snowmobile areas intact, slicing tens of thousands of acres off his 2010 and 2006 bills. And while he opened up more areas for mountain bikes, he did not honor Johnson’s and Gehrke’s deal that allowed the bikers into two high-mountain areas.
Johnson, Gehrke’s Wilderness Society and Simpson’s other long-time supporters decided to back the bill, bitter pill that it was. They took heat, especially from the mountain bike community, even though they didn’t give up on the monument campaign.
“My job is to get the job done and this is the moment,” Johnson said. “The opportunity evolved and I was multidenominational.”
Johnson also wasn’t sure he could get it done. Risch twisted arms and cajoled the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on which he served to hold a hearing in May. Johnson testified for all of the groups endorsing the bill, while Brett Stevenson from the Wood River Bike Coalition testified against it. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso asked Johnson whether he would drop his monument campaign if Simpson’s bill passed. He said yes.
“If I hadn’t made that commitment already, I wouldn’t have been invited to testify,” Johnson said.
Simpson reached out to Utah Republican Rep. Robb Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, to get an early hearing in the House. Bishop had planned to do all wilderness bill hearings in September and to demand that all had language that prevented future national monument designations in the area. Simpson said he would pull his bill if he had to add that.
But Simpson and Bishop are old friends. Simpson said he had to get his bill done by the August recess or Obama’s monument effort would move forward.
Bishop set the hearing for June 15 with no public witnesses, only representatives of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
But there was an obstacle: Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador. He and Simpson have never talked about Simpson’s bill and were not in the hearing room together. Labrador grilled the agency witnesses, raising the possibility that he might seek an amendment akin to what Bishop was proposing — to limit future national monument designations.
Bishop had a markup planned for July 9 to move uncontroversial bills to the floor for unanimous consent. When its agenda came out July 6, Simpson’s bill wasn’t on it.
Simpson’s staff asked about the holdup and was told Labrador might have an amendment.
Labrador went to Johnson’s office the same day for their first talk. “We spent an hour together, it was super candid,” Johnson said. “Frankly I enjoyed it, and I think he enjoyed it, too.”
And Simpson’s bill? “I’m not going to get in his way,” Johnson said Labrador told him.
Mitchell heard the next morning that the bill was not on the agenda. She was on vacation in Alaska when she emailed Labrador’s staff to see what happened.
“It was just a misunderstanding,” Mitchell said. “Raul’s a man of integrity. When he said he did not want to kill that bill, he meant it.”
She got the bill on the agenda and it passed the committee, and then passed the House by unanimous consent on July 27.
Simpson never doubted he could get the bill through the House, but the Senate was another thing. In the years before the current highly partisan atmosphere, locally driven bills could get through relatively easy. Slater had moved the Steens Mountain bill through the Senate in 2000 using a tactic called “holding at the desk.”
The Senate majority leader would hold a bill passed by the House until the end of the day, when the Senate journal would reflect that the bill had unanimous consent and had passed. But before that, the bill had to be “hotlined,” which meant every member had to be informed it was there and could place a hold on the bill or ask for more information.
Slater told Simpson about the strategy in February. When the bill passed the House, Simpson had Boehner ask Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to use it.
Meanwhile, Risch got the Senate committee to mark up his identical bill, and it was sent to the floor July 30. Stanley resident and Grammy-winning songwriter and singer Carole King, who opposed Simpson’s wilderness bills, re-emerged, lobbying Democrats she had raised money to elect.
She wanted the national monument, not Simpson’s bill, a former Democratic Senate aide said. But she couldn’t stop it.
The “hotlining” began, and last Friday Sen. Ted Cruz placed a hold on the bill, Greenwire reported. Several congressional sources said Risch and Utah Sen. Mike Lee convinced Cruz to drop his hold.
Risch would not confirm that. “I will confirm I talked to almost everybody who placed holds on it,” Risch said.
Risch has said repeatedly that Simpson deserves the credit for the bill. But in its final hours Tuesday, it was Risch who broke the logjam. The bill passed the Senate unanimously.
“There is almost no bill stuck in any hole that can’t be dislodged if you can’t find the right key,” Risch said.