Wilderness Designation Trade-Offs Faulted

Ocalkens Peak in Idaho's White Cloud Mountains towers behind a trekker. The proposed Boulder-White Clouds wilderness area overlaps the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, northeast of Boise.
Ocalkens Peak in Idaho's White Cloud Mountains towers behind a trekker. The proposed Boulder-White Clouds wilderness area overlaps the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, northeast of Boise. (By Tim Breuer -- Wild Idaho)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006

Congress is on the verge of approving half a dozen bills that would protect as much as 1 million acres of wilderness areas across the West, but the move has infuriated environmentalists who charge that lawmakers are giving away too much pristine public land to real estate developers and local communities in the process.

If lawmakers finish work on the legislation before adjourning -- several bills have passed the House already and a Senate hearing is scheduled for Wednesday -- it would amount to the largest designation of new wilderness areas in a decade. But advocates and critics are in a bitter fight over the trade-offs, with opponents saying the public is paying too high a price.

One pending bill would protect a 273,000-acre stretch of California's northern coast to preserve steelhead and salmon habitat -- but it would also guarantee that off-road vehicles could use an area nearby. Another measure would create a 300,000-acre wilderness area in Idaho while handing over 4,000 acres to state and local authorities to develop or manage on their own.

"For a public interest movement to succeed, it has to be supported by the public and it has to move [forward]," said Rick Johnson, Idaho Conservation League executive director, who teamed up with Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) to craft the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act. "This is not the time to let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

But several environmental activists, including singer-songwriter and Idaho resident Carole King and Janine Blaeloch, director of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project, said the bills would set a dangerous precedent.

"With some environmental groups supporting these bills, we are entrenching this trend and we're making it more difficult for wilderness advocates in the future to gain uncompromised wilderness designations," Blaeloch said. "When you're in a hostile political environment that requires these kinds of trade-offs, you need to stop."

The new legislative approach reflects a simple political reality: Republican congressional leaders will accept new wilderness areas only if they come with these kinds of trade-offs. Wilderness designations have often been difficult to push through Congress because they are more restrictive than national forest or park designations, and bar man-made structures or roads within their confines.

As House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.) said in an interview: "If I didn't want wilderness, I easily could have stopped all these bills."

Instead, Pombo let Simpson's bill and Rep. Mike Thompson's (D-Calif.) Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Act pass his committee and the full House in late July after they made concessions to off-road vehicle buffs and local officials.

"By doing that, you've brought in groups who have been historically opposed and made them into supporters," Pombo said.

The battle over the Idaho bill, which would create the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness area northeast of Boise, is typical. The proposed site, which overlaps the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, includes trails that cut across boulder fields featuring gigantic granite rocks the size of railroad cars. The rocks were dragged by glaciers thousands of years ago and dropped into odd and seemingly precarious perches.

There are several emerald and turquoise alpine lakes in the area, as well as waterfalls that pour into local streams. In summer, the ground is a patchwork of brilliantly colored wildflowers -- including lupine, Indian paintbrush, columbines and lilies -- that grow in the sunny vales between patches of forest.

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