Letters from the West

Boulder-White Clouds bill passes Senate, goes to President

Forty years ago, environmental groups started pushing to protect wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds. For more than a decade, one Idaho Congressman has been crafting and re-crafting legislation to make it happen. On Tuesday, the bill passed its final hurdle and is now on its way to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The plan designates 275,665 acres of the Boulder-White Clouds marked by white peaks, mountain lakes and spectacular scenery into three separate areas: the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness, the White Clouds Wilderness and the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness.

“The passage of this bill is a huge victory for Idahoans who’ve worked for over 15 years to create a land management plan for the Boulder-White Clouds,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who put together the plan. “I am grateful for each and every person who participated in crafting this solution over the years and I am especially grateful to Senator Jim Risch who worked relentlessly to see this pass the U.S. Senate today.”

Risch, R-Idaho, brought the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act to the Senate floor late Tuesday where it passed without objection by unanimous consent.

“Today history was made,” said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, who has pushed for protection of the area since 1983.

The larger area, including Jerry Peak, has important wildlife habitat and all areas are popular for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, hunting and fishing.

“Today Idahoans can celebrate that the future of the wild Boulder-White Clouds area is secure and that its treasured lands and wildlife habitat will be preserved for future generations,” said Craig Gehrke, Idaho director with The Wilderness Society.

In 2002, Simpson began working on a bill to create a wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds and to help the rural communities of Custer and Blaine counties that surround the area. Simpson introduced his first bill in 2004 but it was killed in the final hour of 2006.

In 2010, Simpson tried again but prodded by motorized recreation groups, Risch pulled his support.

This time Risch joined Simpson in engineering a seven-month collaborative effort to get broad support ranging from conservation groups to motorized recreation, local communities and even the anti-wilderness Idaho Farm Bureau.

“Through a collaborative effort, Congressman Simpson crafted this legislation that is truly an Idaho bill,” said Risch in a statement Tuesday. “Regardless of where people are on this issue there isn’t anyone who would disagree that the heart of this area is one of the most remarkable places in the world.”

Mike Matz, director of the Pew Charitable Trust U.S. public lands program, thanked Simpson and Risch for their efforts.

“This natural gem is one of largest unprotected wild places in the Lower 48 states, with magnificent 10,000-foot peaks, sparkling alpine lakes and flower-filled meadows teeming with wildlife,” he said.

The Obama administration made it clear to Simpson and others it intended to proclaim more than 500,000 acres of the area a national monument including most of the East Fork of the Salmon River watershed. The White Clouds were designated a wilderness study area when the Sawtooth National Recreation Area was created in 1972.

That law came about in part to stop a molybdenum mine at the base of Castle Peak in the White Clouds. Cecil Andrus won the governor’s race in 1970 campaigning against the mine. He tried to protect the area in 1988 as wilderness along with Sen. Jim McClure and has been the leading advocate of a national monument, pressing President Obama for nearly five years.

“I’m extremely pleased that Mike’s wilderness bill has passed,” Andrus told the Idaho Statesman. “It’s a long road we’ve covered but we’ve finally gotten to the end of it.”

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