Monumental Wilderness in Idaho

Idaho legislators have a plan for a new wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds; conservation groups want a national monument. Who speaks for the land? By Mike Medberry

Once upon a time, Idaho’s forests were green, water ran gin-clear from the mountains and the sky was not cloudy all day. In those days, there was no need for political wilderness. But in the 1940s, 1950s and early ’60s, people like Mardy Murie, Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson and Wallace Stegner felt compelled to protect the last remaining wild places. Logging, mining and road building were rampant and wildlands were being diminished like “snow on a hot summer’s day,” as conservationist John Muir once said.

Howard Zahniser wrote, shortly before dying: “I believe we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.” In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson enacted the Wilderness Act, seeking to protect unroaded land and 9 million acres were immediately designated as wilderness areas. In those days, all of society seemed to look forward to a 4-day workweek with less work to occupy our time—we needed wilderness–but in 2015 neither wilderness nor the workweek present such a black-and-white question.


In March, U.S. Representative Mike Simpson and Senator Jim Risch introduced the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act, a bill that would designate 275,665 acres of wilderness in three areas of the Boulder-White Cloud mountains. This bill has been in discussion for 30 years, but the current proposal, a re-crafted version of Simpson’s CIEDRA legislation (Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act), which would have designated 332,928 acres in the Boulder-White Clouds, is much smaller than other plans over the years. The legislation shrank by 60,301 acres over several days of recent discussions with snowmobile and heli-skiing interests. Compromises have been traded for a dozen years, including, of late, attempts to win support from Risch, who is said to have blocked the last version of the bill in the Senate. Will this be the bill?

The new Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill allows more land to be used by off-road vehicle (ORV) and snowmobile riders by eliminating some roadless land from wilderness designation but defines fewer exceptions to wilderness under the Wilderness Act, making the areas smaller while gaining begrudging support from some wilderness purists.

Simpson and Risch intoduced their wilderness bill when they heard that President Obama would proclaim a national monument in the Boulder White Cloud Mountains. That was a frightening and nebulous proposal that worried many of their constituents in Central Idaho. The monument was said to protect the ecosystem overlaying the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, but it didn’t define exactly what that protection meant. It could mean anything and the president had the power to protect the land under the Antiquities Act of 1906 by proclamation. It could be accomplished before anyone really knew what it would do. It would be fait accompli in a year and that threat prompted snowmobile supporters and off road motor vehicle users to react. In 2014, 95 percent of the voters who voted in Custer County, which is adjacent to the Boulder White Cloud Mountains, opposed  the monument.

“We do need wilderness,” Sandra Mitchell, public lands director of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association told me in February. “It is not a completely bad idea, however I believe there is enough wilderness in Idaho.” Mitchell is a veteran of the “wilderness wars”  the ’80s and ’90s and was an aide to former Senator Steve Symms. Consequently she is careful with her words but mostly clear on the message.

Before about 1998, logging and mining were seen as the biggest conflicts on roadless areas, but today logging in Idaho is only a small percentage of what it was in 1990 and mining has many more regulations attached to it after years of environmental litigation and wrangled-out compromises. Today the issues in the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains are mostly recreation-based conflicts.

“There are a lot of compromises in Simpson’s (new) bill,” said Dani Mazzotta, Central Idaho Associate for the Idaho Conservation League (ICL). “It’s tough, and over a decade it has been getting smaller every time we see it. We don’t oppose it but we’re disappointed in the trade offs that are being made now. However, the national monument proposal has legs and strong support.” As she said, a national monument does not protect wilderness. Mazziotta added that she thought that “President Obama will listen to all interests. It will be pretty balanced. The big thing is that ICL will continue to support the national monument and build more support for it.”

But compromise is the name of the game in Idaho today. One of the reasons that Simpson again raised issues in central Idaho in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additiions Act is that President Obama is considering proclaiming a national monument over the same area and Simpson doesn’t like the uncertainty of the president’s proposal. The president visited Idaho on January 21 of this year and Simpson’s bill was offered just two days later for discussion.

Lindsay Slater, chief of staff for Rep. Simpson said that Simpson “…wouldn’t have suggested the bill if he thought that he couldn’t get it done before the monument would be declared.” John Podesta, known as the knuckle-rapping master for the administration and counselor to President Obama, gave Simpson six to nine months to get his bill passed before the president would move on the monument idea. “Rep. Simpson has met with the affected groups and he continues to push for a bill that works for everyone. We think that an Idaho based solution would be better than a Washington D.C. plan,” Slater added.


The national monument would be proclaimed by the president under the Antiquities Act of 1906 but it’s unclear exactly what it would protect. Nonetheless, everyone has big plans for it. Call it the president’s smorgasbord proclamation, a political compromise favoring the president and his supporters. The proclamation would most likely support mountain bikes in roadless areas recommended by the Forest Service as wilderness, would support the concept of wilderness and probably would offer snowmobiles and ORVs a number of routes within the approximately 600,000 acres. Simpson and Risch’s bills would create three new Wilderness Areas that exclude mountain bikes, motorized vehicles, and allow other adjacent roadless areas to be managed for other uses. The wilderness areas that would be designated under Simpson’s legislation are the Hemingway–Boulders Wilderness (67,998 acres), White Cloud Wilderness (90,769 acres), and the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness (116,898 acres).

Mitchell laughed when asked whether she supported the national monument or Simpson’s bill. “It’s not a decision that the recreation coalition ever envisioned. But it is our reality now and we are working on it. We’ve worked on the monument proposal and we’ve put together excellent material. We went to D.C. to meet with the Under Secretary (U.S. Department of Agriculture), to CEQ (Council on Environmental Quality) and to the Pew foundation. We’ve taken our message and we’ve told folks how we feel about the monument. I’ve done everything but crying big and if I thought that would make a difference I’d cry!” Mitchell would gain more out of Simpson’s wilderness bill because much of the land that is used by snowmobiles or ORVs was eliminated from the wilderness. That was not the case in earlier versions of CIEDRA.

According to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report on national monuments, the Act requires designation of  “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” But that statement from the Antiquities Act has been interpreted rather liberally over the years since it was written. Consider the 1.9 million acre Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument in which, with the stroke of his pen, President Bill Clinton zeroed out an very valuable coal mine and supported a huge recreation industry. In Alaska, President Jimmy Carter, with the support of his Interior Secretary, Gov. Cecil Andrus from Idaho, reserved 100 million acres of land which led to a negotiation protecting 56 million acres of wilderness, as well as national parks and national refuges. That negotiation process also opened up other areas for specific purposes like logging and oil production. Carter said that he had been forced to use the Antiquities Act by Congress’ failure to act in a reasonable time to deal with the land issue in Alaska.

Those are exactly the circumstances today in Idaho: Congress hasn’t acted in a responsible period of time to deal with Central Idaho’s public lands. Simpson has attempted to pass legislation since 2004 on the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, the creme-de-la-crème of Idaho’s unprotected mountain ranges. Legions of Congress members have considered the issue of Idaho’s roadless areas since 1986 (Reps. John Seiberling, Peter Kostmayer, Bruce Vento, Larry LaRocco, Morris Udall, and Sens. James McClure, Steve Symms, and Larry Craig among them). No decision could be made on the roadless forested areas in Idaho and advocates for wilderness faced-off against advocates for logging, mining and grazing. A report put together with funding from the State of Idaho in the 1992s recommended against deciding on the wilderness issue because wilderness was too contentious to solve. And there it is has lingered and festered over the years.

The Antiquities Act was designed to protect federal lands and resources quickly; presidents of both political parties have proclaimed monuments. Many of the 178 monuments were controversial, some have been converted to National Parks or National Reserves or other categories, and none of the proclamations needed to follow environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA normally requires a time consuming and costly Environmental Impact Statements to justify significant changes to the environment. The Antiquities Act was used by Pres. George W. Bush in 2009 to create the 60.9 million acres of the Marina Archipelago National Monument near Guam. Pres. Herbert Hoover, : also a Republican, created the Death Valley National Monument and Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Grand Canyon National Monument. Both of these monuments have been expanded and converted into National Parks. In 1987, Pres. Ronald Reagan created the El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico and in 2000 Pres. Clinton expanded the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. So far Obama has designated 16 national monuments, including, most recently, Pullman town in Chicago, the Honouliuli Internment Camp near Pearl Harbor, and the 21,000-acre Browns Canon in Central Colorado.

In other words, Simpson’s worries about a national monument being proclaimed in Idaho are well founded. But Simpson knows well the political strategies on the art of war and wilderness. One political sleight-of-hand might be to change an Idaho national monument into some other land protection category through legislation following its proclamation, as Simpson did with the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Reserve. That national monument became, in part, a legislated national reserve. And the law affirming it assured ORV advocates that their use would continue in Craters of the Moon, contingent upon a travel plan being developed.

Another complication is that Senators Crapo and Risch offered a bill, S. 228, in January which would make the process of proclaiming a national monument far more difficult than it is now. That bill would require the approval of Congress and legislation in the state where the national monument is proposed before any monument can be approved. It would also require compliance with NEPA. Anger over creation of the Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943 altered implementation of the Antiquities Act in Wyoming; it required the support of Congress for any national monument crafted by the president in that state. That provision proved effective in eliminating presidential power over national monuments in Wyoming. Passage of S. 228 or inserting it into other legislation would likely have the same effect in Idaho or elsewhere if it is universal. However, Obama would most likely veto it.


After passage of the Wilderness Act, the U.S. Forest Service created a nationwide roadless area policy  that looked at all of the unroaded Forest Service lands. Conservationists challenged that policy  twice and the land under study increased both times. Congress sought to resolve the wilderness issue in 1986 by designating 8.6 million acres in 20 states, and in those 20 states they largely succeeded. However, many Western states, including Idaho, were left in the lurch with outstanding roadless areas in contention for wilderness designation by 2015. Idaho had roughly 9 million acres of roadless areas, in addition to 4.5 million acres that were already designated as wilderness. Moreover, the Bureau of Land Management’s organic law was amended in 1976 and protected all of the inventoried unroaded lands in that agency’s desert land as Wilderness Study Areas. Every WSA, of which there were 1.8 million acres in Idaho, was protected, not by a mere policy as the Forest Service had done, but specifically by the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) until they were studied and “released” from, or protected, as wilderness.

With 4.5 million acres of Wilderness Areas, Idaho is currently in third place in the 50 states for the amount of designated wilderness, behind Alaska’s 57 million acres and California’s 15 million acres. There are now 109.5 million acres of designated wilderness in the United States. Idaho still has about 11 million acres of wild, unroaded land that qualify as wilderness out of a total of 53 million acres of land in the state. Eight point five percent (8.5%) of the state, has been designated as wilderness under the Wilderness Act, including the Frank Church River of No Return, Selway-Bitterroot, Gospel Hump, Sawtooth, Craters of the Moon, Seven Devils and Owyhee (517,000 acres of BLM land) wilderness areas. Is 8.5 percent enough wilderness for a state that has another 11 million acres of undeveloped land?

In his recent guest opinion in the Idaho Statesman, Eric Melson, former program director of the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation, wrote the following: “…The traditional conservation demographic has shifted. Instead of just backpackers, hunters, anglers, boaters, and climbers speaking up for healthy landscapes, mountain bikers are voicing their concern about access to and protection of America’s wild places. Adrenalin-fueled activities piloted by younger activists should now have a seat at the table… National monument status is sensical, does not need legislative approval, and has room to negotiate travel panning for all parties, especially mountain bikers.” That states the position of the nouveau advocates for mountain bikes on the national monument for Idaho but it fails to account for the political element of wilderness designations.

In fact, Rep Simpson stated in his most recent statement (3/9/15) that “Allowing corridors in the three proposed wilderness areas is non-negotiable, and the three wildernesses in my bill will each remain undivided and without corridors. I am certain that anything else will result in a monument.”

Brad Books, deputy regional director for The Wilderness Society, took a different twist. “We are not working on a wilderness bill for the Boulder White Clouds,” he said. “It’s all been talk, and talk is cheap. The proof is in the pudding. It’s not a Congress that we think will support a lot of wilderness.” TWS, ICL, along with Wood River Bicycle Coalition and the International Mountain Biking Association have a formed a firm agreement with each other, signed as a Memorandum of Understanding, committing them to work on the national monument.

Brooks laid out the plan for the monument which he termed was “a very real and credible proposal that has the attention of the president and the Administration… We’ve created a coalition of support that is quite broad: recreation groups, elected officials, sportsmen organizations and conservation groups. One of the things that I like about the monument is the watershed protection. But what makes the Boulder White Clouds special is the people, uses, and the land itself.”

Brooks mentioned that the East Fork of the Salmon River has the longest migration route for anadromous fish and the highest elevation spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead. “It also includes the entire East Fork of the Salmon River drainage, allows a variety of recreation uses from mountain bikers to hunters and all of them would have a place in the monument.” The monument might include comprehensive protections for the region’s wildlife, fisheries, wild lands, recreation, and historic values and a management plan would determine where mechanized and motorized use would be permitted in a travel plan.

Gary MacFarland, Director of Friends of the Clearwater in Moscow, gave the process his organization’s perspective. “Both proposals have problems and I find a lot of irony in them. There is less mountain biking allowed in certain places than in the monument. That’s weird and making a deal with the mountain bikers is a strategic blunder.” MacFarland’s  group supports 1.5 million acres of wild areas in North Idaho. “The wilderness bill is too small but it’s better than anything I’ve seen before because it doesn’t include all of the special language that CIEDRA had. It’s the cleanest wilderness language bill that we’ve seen from Simpson; it’s cleaner than what passed in the River of No Return Wilderness Bill in 1980.”

George Nickas, director of Wilderness Watch, concurs with Macfarland. He has worked for more than 20 years at maintaining the quality of designated wilderness areas and runs a national organization doing that work. He said that “The national monument proposal eviscerates the land with all of the ORV and mountain bike paths. Simpson’s bill provides wilderness, and it doesn’t mandate a bunch of crap like it once did. I think that the land in Simpson’s current bill would be better protected than it would be under a monument. But the protected land should be about twice as big.”

Regardless of all of the disagreement, The Wilderness Act defines a wilderness as an area “…where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain… (It) retain(s) its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” When the law passed in 1964 it allowed grazing, hiking, river boating, horseback riding, but no motorized vehicles nor bicycles, and it allowed each state to manage wildlife. There were other compromises in specific areas as they were designated and in the River of No Return Wilderness, jet boats were allowed to run up the Salmon River, airplanes were allowed to continue landing within the wilderness and a large area was reserved for cobalt mining within the wilderness if the need for cobalt ever became essential. Still the Wilderness Act has been the envy of many nations, providing inspiration from South Africa to Canada and India to Costa Rica. It has harbored animals and plants that can live nowhere else, and it remains a place in the imagination where all wild things may continue living in a warming climate on an overpopulated planet.

Tom Pomeroy a long-time supporter of wilderness and a resident in the Big Wood River Valley between the Smoky and Boulder Mountains, provides a more passionate view of unroaded lands. “I love Wilderness,” Pomeroy wrote in an email. “It’s the best and most important resource that Idaho has! It lasts forever and is available for anyone who wants to go there to explore, enjoy, and be grateful that it still exists. I know that compromise is part of the game, but it’s so short-sighted to always reduce the issue to what one user group says they need. That’s why 95 percent of the continental U.S. is already roaded and gone. The mountain bikers are just another new user group wanting to tear across the landscape so they can say that they ‘did’ it, snap a picture, and then get back home because they’re so busy. Many don’t want to take the time to enjoy the land on its own terms and think what’s best for wildlife, the future, and ever-increasing threats that a rapidly expanding civilization creates.”


Whatever you think about Idaho’s wilderness, none can say that the debate lacks passion. But since 1964 the human population has grown substantially, forests have burned, the Gross Domestic Product has climbed, the poverty rate has hovered at around 14.5 percent nationwide, the world has grown warmer and wetter and no one dares to dream of a four-day work week anymore. Recreation is mostly a lounging trip on a tour ship in the Caribbean, a day-trip on a mountain bike, or on a motorized vehicle riding up and down snowy mountains to gather bragging rights. A few hikers, rafters, kayakers and horseback riders — seekers of solitude, wildlife and untrammeled landscapes — seem to value wilderness these days but they are quickly growing old. The greatest value of wild places is their connectivity to each other and the refuge of protected fish and wildlife habitat that only wilderness guarantees.

Simpson is bucking his natural colleagues to get a valuable job done, to protect the wildest places that he knows in Idaho, and he is accepting compromises in a few beautiful places where some don’t think he should. But Simpson is no shrinking violet. He’s marching the direction that his heart tells him is the right way. Idaho Conservation League in Idaho and the Wilderness Society, at the national level have set course for a national monument. Both have strengths and weaknesses but the monument is ill defined. Conservationists are at the crossroads, as Simpson moves toward a final conclusion that will resolve the character of the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains. Simpson’s supporters are now solid. The primary unanswered question is what President Obama will say to Simpson’s bill that deals with the Boulder White Cloud Mountains.

Simpson advances his new legislation with compromises that recognize the facts on the ground in this conservative state and lead toward completion of a job that began when all the forests still were green, the water ran gin-clear from the mountains, and the sky was not cloudy all day.

—Mike Medberry worked for The Wilderness Society as its Utah Director for three years; was the Legislative Director, Water Quality Representative, and Conservation Director for Idaho Conservation League for nine years; and was the Director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council for two years. After that he wrote a book about having a stroke in the Craters of the Moon National Monument and has written numerous opinion and non-fiction articles for local and regional magazines. 

Photo by Ed Cannady/Idaho Conservation League