It didn’t take Idaho’s freshman congressman Walt Minnick long to follow through on one of his campaign promises by co-sponsoring a wilderness bill that House colleague Mike Simpson has been trying for eight years to pass.
Minnick is the Democrat who unseated Simpson’s fellow Republican, Rep. Bill Sali, in November. Neither Sali nor his predecessor, now-Gov. Butch Otter, would ever team up with Simpson on the bill that would create three wilderness areas totaling more than 318,000 acres in the Boulder Mountains and White Cloud Peaks.
Significantly, the measure would also unlock more than 130,000 acres of land that is under wilderness study designation while a decision is awaited.
Minnick, who is a former wood products company CEO and a former board member of the Wilderness Society, had declared his support for the plan during his campaign against the conservative Sali. He had also pledged to “work across the aisle” on behalf of pragmatic solutions in the interest of all Idahoans in the traditionally Republican-voting state.
The Minnick-Simpson alliance – on the wilderness bill for now and presumably other measures in the future – is a good sign for Idaho on at least two fronts. First, the wilderness bill is a reasonable compromise that strikes a balance between conservation and development; second, Gem State residents will be generally well-served by a delegation that looks for pragmatic answers in the middle ground rather than retreating to separate ideological boundaries.
Where the measure goes from here is impossible to say at present, but without solidarity from the state’s two House members it was likely headed the same place it went last time Simpson introduced it by himself: nowhere.
It still can be expected to attract opposition from some environmentalist voices, not because of the wilderness it creates but because of the access a wilderness decision would allow to some of the released land for non-wilderness uses.
As part of the compromise bill, Custer County would receive economic development grants and some Idaho counties would acquire federal land for such public uses as low-income housing and water projects. That doesn’t sit well with the interests that pushed two years ago for a massive conservation bill that would have established 24 million acres of wilderness across the West.
Backers of the plan have opposed Simpson’s bill as he opposed theirs.
For Simpson and Minnick to come together now on a plan that embraces balance is an encouraging sign for the future.