Letters from the West

Idaho conservationist speaks for large coalition supporting Boulder-White Clouds wilderness

Rick Johnson spoke for more than the Idaho Conservation League in a Senate hearing Thursday in Washington, D.C., on a bill to protect the Boulder-White Clouds and Jerry Peak mountains as wilderness.

Johnson, who runs the ICL, was speaking for other conservation groups, such as the Wilderness Society and the Pew Charitable Trusts, and also for the Idaho Cattle Association, the Idaho Farm Bureau, East Fork of the Salmon River ranchers, the Idaho Water Users, and the Idaho Recreation Council, which represents motorcyclists and snowmobilers.

Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch asked Johnson whether he was uncomfortable speaking for groups he often opposed.

“They’re probably uncomfortable about that, too,” Johnson responded.

“You said that, not me,” said Risch, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

Johnson testified at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining, representing an unlikely coalition of 26 groups and local governments in support of the compromise wilderness bill that Johnson has worked toward his entire 30-year career.

“There has never been such broad consensus around legislation for the Boulder-White Clouds,” Johnson told the panel. “And as we all know, there are other options for protection being discussed.”

The main alternative is a 591,800-acre proposal for a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument, which the Idaho Conservation League, the Wilderness Society and a coalition of conservation and outdoor business groups have urged President Barack Obama to designate using the Antiquities Act of 1906.

The only other witness at the hearing who wasn’t a federal official was one of Johnson’s partners in protecting the Boulder-White Clouds, Brett Stevenson of the Wood River Valley Bike Coalition and the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

“We support enhanced protection for even more of this amazing landscape than what this bill would create,” said Stevenson. “However, we do not believe wilderness, as used in this bill, is the most appropriate solution.”

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act would prohibit development and mechanized use — including the mountain bikes that members of Stevenson’s group like to ride — on 272,000 acres in three areas: Hemingway, White Clouds and Jim A. McClure-Jerry Peak.

In addition, the bill would allow a transfer of four acres of land from the federal government to the city of Stanley for affordable housing for local workers. Custer County would get access to $1 million already appropriated for general purposes in the county.

Johnson said he could relate to Stevenson’s concern, but noted that the compromise bill dropped 57,000 acres from the wilderness bill that Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson brought to the committee in 2010.

“There are significant parts of the Boulder-White Clouds that are not included here, that we always assumed would ultimately be protected,” Johnson said. “But this bill does protect the wilderness heart of the area.

“It also provides more bike access than any bill ever introduced for the Boulder-White Clouds.”

Stevenson said her group wants access to four trails out of a dozen that would be closed, so the bill could be altered to provide nonwilderness corridors for these trails.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., asked Stevenson whether amending the act to allow mountain bikes in wildernesses would solve the problem. She said that it would, but that she was not advocating that.

Risch said he would run the adjustments Stevenson wants past the bill’s supporters.

“I’m not going to let this get in the way of passing this bill,” Risch said.

The House is expected to hold a hearing in June on Simpson’s identical House bill. Risch’s bill was heard along with a set of other wilderness and public land bills, which could end up in a package for a vote before the full committee. Simpson hopes his House bill will pass the House Natural Resources Committee on its own.