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Idaho Wilderness Bill is a Hot Potato

Photo: Sweet singletrack in Idaho's Boulder White Clouds region. Image by Leslie Kehmeier.

Things have gotten hot again in Idaho. No, this isn't a reference to climate change or an impending snowmelt—the heat source is a continuing debate about how to best protect the state's amazing backcountry, particularly in the Boulder-White Clouds area. IMBA and our local chapter the Wood River Bike Coalition (WRBC) have been closely involved with shaping land protection proposals in this region for many months, but rarely has the discussion been so fevered as in the past few weeks.

Earlier this month, IMBA and WRBC turned up the heat on Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson by getting 124 businesses to sign onto a letter requesting that Simpson alter a wilderness proposal he has been pushing to make it more bike friendly. We certainly got his attention! Rep. Simpson issued an official response directed specifically to mountain bikers.

"Recently, I have heard concerns from some mountain biking advocates that my legislation will impact tourism and business in Idaho," reads the Simpson statement. "It goes without saying that mountain biking is an important activity in the Boulder-White Clouds area.  Mountain bikers significantly use and enjoy this area, and at the same time are strong supporters of local businesses."

It's definitely a good sign that the congressman is acknowledging mountain bikers are an important constituency—though being acknowledged and being accommodated are not the same thing. In a process this storied, changes don't happen overnight. Another encouraging sign was an editorial by the Idaho Statesman's Rocky Barber titled Mountain bikers left out of Simpson's wilderness. Okay, so that's not the title of our dreams, but the fact is that influential voices in the state are recognizing that mountain biking advocacy is a player and our access must be considered in the land protection debate.

Pressure like this is likely to bring results. What results, exactly, is still hard to say. We have been trying to insert ourselves for years and retrofit this process to our liking one way or another. At this writing there are a few options on the table, including the possibility of a national monument designation by the Obama administration that would likely end Simpson's wilderness plans. (For a closer look at the national monument possibilities in Idaho you can read the cover story in IMBA's newest edition of Trail News.)

All this overheating from colliding agendas has led to some strange outcomes. At this point, we have the unusual scenario of a Republican lawmaker pushing a wilderness bill in a Republican congress (historially the right side of the aisle has resisted federal wilderness designations in favor of more access). The wilderness community has not rallied behind Simpson's proposal as strongly as they usually would, in part because of conerns about the political overtones of the bill and concessions made. Meanwhile, the motorized recreation community, which was taken care of nicely in the latest Simpson plan, supports the wilderness bill even though they typical abhor new wilderness additions. Add to this that the main agenda of the Idaho delegation on this bill is to prevent a monument designation by the president and you get a Twilight Zone-like set of circumstances that could spin off in a new direction at any time.

As you can see, we haven't quite hit the boiling point in Idaho but the mercury is rising. Stay tuned for more developments!

— Aaron Clark, IMBA Conservation Manager

PS: If you'd like to voice your support for bike-friendly land protection in Idaho take note of this invitation from Rep. Simpson: Please email me with the subject line “Mountain Bikes” to: Simpson [dot] SNRA [at] mail [dot] house [dot] gov

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