BOISE – U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson has tried for eight years to get his House counterpart from Idaho to support his bill to create three new wilderness areas in central Idaho. He finally got it Tuesday when Idaho’s newest House member signed on.
Simpson, a Republican, and Democrat Walt Minnick introduced the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act on Tuesday, Minnick’s first day as a member of the U.S. House.
The legislation is a carbon copy of the version Simpson pushed last year, but failed to get out of the House Committee on Natural Resources. It calls for creating more than 318,000 acres of new wilderness in the Boulder Mountains and White Cloud Peaks, as well as providing economic incentives and public land transfers to benefit Custer and Blaine counties.
“I think what’s exciting this time is we have the support of both members of the Idaho delegation in the House,” Simpson spokeswoman Nikki Watts said.
In previous attempts, Simpson was unable to get former Idaho House colleagues Butch Otter and Bill Sali, both Republicans, to get behind the bill. Otter, who served from 2000-2006 and now is in his first term as governor, voiced political concerns and questions about water rights. Sali, who was beaten by Minnick in November, never committed his support during his two years in office.
Minnick, a former timber products company executive, endorsed the wilderness proposal in his campaign, citing the need to protect some of the state’s pristine backcountry and Simpson’s efforts to bring diverse groups together in support of the plan.
“There is a beautiful stretch of Idaho virgin wilderness that a wide cross section of the public believes needs to be protected,” Minnick spokesman John Foster said.
“Wilderness bills have a more difficult time getting passed if the delegation is not unanimous in its support. To have on the very first day … Idaho’s two congressmen, a Republican and a Democrat behind it, I think sends a very loud message that will help it get over some hurdles.”
The measure would also release 131,616 acres from wilderness study designation, provide economic development grants to Custer County and transfer to counties federal land that could be used for low income housing, municipal water projects and other public uses.
But it’s the land transfer component that still rankles some of the bill’s longtime detractors.
Janine Blaeloch, of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project, said lawmakers should think twice about handing over so much public land to developers.
“The days of homesteading and giving away the public domain are behind us,” Blaeloch said. “If Minnick wants to co-sponsor this bill, the best thing he could do would be to heavily amend it to take out the land giveaways and just create some true wilderness protection.”
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