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Idaho mountains declared federal wilderness after decades-long bid

A big swath of Idaho wilderness will now be protected from development, thanks to legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on Friday. The law ended a 40-year effort that was supported by environmentalists, ranchers, recreation groups and Idaho's Congressional delegation. Idaho Public Television's Rocky Barker reports.

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    The Boulder-White Clouds Mountains in Central Idaho are a scenic landscape of soaring mountain peaks, lush forests and pristine lakes and rivers. 275,000 acres of this public land is now a federally protected wilderness area, which means it will remain open to recreation and closed to development.

    When President Obama signed the wilderness bill into law, it was a personal victory for Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, who backed the idea for 15 years. Simpson's efforts accelerated earlier after meeting Obama Advisser John Podesta last year.


    I went up and introduced myself to John and said, 'listen, I'd like 6 months to see if we could get a bill moving in Congress,' and by then we would know whether we could get one done or not. And he said, 'Go for it.' So the administration gave us the 6-months to work on it before they were going to do a national monument.


    Declaring these mountains a national monument would have protected them but would have left many details unresolved. As a wildnerness area, the uses of the land are more strictly defined.

    The Boulder-White Clouds Mountains have had some federal protection since 1972, when then-Governor Cecil Andrus stopped a molybendum mine from being built at the base of Castle Peak Mountain.

    Andrus, who also served as Interior Secretary under President Carter, initially urged President Obama to use his executive authority to protect the Boulder-White Clouds by declaring them a national monument.

    Craig Gehrke is the Idaho Director of the Wilderness Society.


    There was still a big question in our mind whether or not a Congress could really do anything anymore. So we continued with our monument effort, figuring that that was…up until a few weeks ago was the more sure thing.


    But Congressman Simpson decided to make another run at declaring the mountains a wilderness area and got his bill through the House in July.

    Idaho Senator James Risch, who previously opposed the bill, agreed to sponsor the Senate version.


    What Congressman Simpson was able to do is to get everybody to the table in a very collaborative fashion to where he go the wilderness preservationists, the hikers, the backpackers, the horse people, the motorized users, including both snowmobiles and ATV and motorcycle people to all agree as to a management plan for everything that's included in this bill.


    Idaho Conservation League Director Rick Johnson told a Senate committee hearing why the landscape needed protecting.


    These mountain ranges contain the headwaters of four major rivers and are home to some of the highest elevation salmon habitat on Earth. This is a landscape of summer and winter range for big game and critical habitat for endangered and elusive species like wolverine. It is also an unparalleled resource for many different recreational pursuits.


    Sandra Mitchell, who represents snowmobilers and motorcyclists, favored the creation of a wilderness area because the designation clearly spells out how the mountain trails around it can be used.


    So that part of it was tough for us – BUT the choice was the national monument or the wilderness and we came down on it – it was a long difficult decision but we came down on the wilderness bill is the best, and then we put 100% of our support behind it and did everything we could to pass it.


    The creation of this new wilderness area is a big law for a small western state that also shows even in these politically charged times, Congress can sometimes work quickly to get something done.

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