Congress Passes 275,665 Acre Wilderness Bill

For the past 40 years, conservationists have fought to protect the Boulder White Clouds as Wilderness. Today, that drama came to a happy ending when the US Senate voted unanimously to bestow Wilderness designation on 275,000 acres of federal land in Central Idaho. The House of Representatives passed identical legislation last week, so the measure now awaits President Obama’s signature.
The Conservation Alliance first supported this effort in 1998 when we made a $35,000 grant to the upstart Boulder White Clouds Council. We have since made five grants totaling $175,000 to Idaho Conservation League, which has led the effort to protect this special place.
During the 17 years of our involvement in this project, the campaign has taken countless twists and turns. In 2006, we organized a delegation of business leaders to travel to Washington, DC to voice support for a protected Boulder White Clouds. Legislation to save the area nearly passed the Congress that December, but failed at the 11th hour. Republican Congressman Mike Simpson, who has championed the bill for 13 years, was disappointed, but not deterred. He has re-introduced the legislation during each subsequent session of Congress.
Last fall, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we organized another group of outdoor industry representatives to go to DC and demonstrate support for protected federal lands. At a Wilderness 50 banquet, we all listened to Congressman Simpson tell the audience of his commitment to saving the Boulder White Clouds. He spoke passionately, and made it clear that he would not rest until this work was done. He was the only Republican to speak that night.
The Boulder White Clouds campaign took another turn last year when, fed up with Congressional inaction, conservationists launched a new effort to ask President Obama to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate the Boulder White Clouds as a national monument. Doing so would bypass Congress, but finally put the issue to rest. The Obama Administration sent signals that they would be willing to make the designation, but – recognizing that the Idaho delegation did not want to see a national monument in their state – agreed to give Congressman Simpson six months in 2015 to move the bill through Congress.
During the national monument push, The Conservation Alliance teamed up with filmmaker Alexandria Bombach to make a short film about the area as part of our worthWILD film series. The film features stunning arial footage of the Boulder White Clouds, and talks about the broad support in the recreation community for the national monument designation. We also met with key representatives in the Obama Administration to voice outdoor business support for the national monument designation.
We endorsed the national monument push for two reasons. First, it seemed unlikely that Congress would ever manage to move legislation. Second, as a national monument, the Boulder White Clouds would be protected, but still allow access to mountain biking, which is prohibited in Wilderness. Our friends in the mountain bike community worked hard to secure the monument designation, reaching an unprecedented agreement with the Wilderness community that brought the two stakeholders – often at odds with each other – together.
With the threat of the national monument proclamation looming, Congressman Simpson worked harder than ever, and managed to move his Wilderness legislation through the House of Representatives. At the same time, Idaho Senator Jim Risch – who once opposed protecting the area – used his seat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to move the bill forward in the Senate. Today, this combination of efforts paid off, and we celebrate our newest Wilderness areas.
Not everyone is celebrating today, though. Our friends in the mountain bike community feel like they have lost access to a truly special area. International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and Outdoor Alliance (OA) pushed hard for the national monument designation. As the Wilderness legislation moved forward, the mountain bike advocates proposed changing the bill to establish a mountain bike corridor through the proposed Wilderness areas. In the end, Congressman Simpson refused that request. In doing so, Simpson articulated the accommodations he made to the mountain bike community in developing the bill. Though not all of our friends will agree with the Congressman’s position, it is worth reading his explanation:
Today, we congratulate Idaho Conservation League, The Wilderness Society, and Congressman Mike Simpson for bringing to a close the 40-year effort to save a special landscape. The Boulder White Clouds now enjoys the highest form of protection we can bestow on our federal lands. Conservation icon Brock Evans, when asked what was his secret to success, said: “Endless pressure, endlessly applied.” The Conservation Alliance is proud to have played a role in applying that pressure, and are relieved that the need for pressure, in this case, was not “endless”.