By the Idaho Recreation Council
Twin Falls, ID - A recently conducted opinion poll of Republican voters in Idaho's 2nd Congressional District indicated overwhelming opposition to Congressman Mike Simpson's Boulder White Cloud Wilderness bill.
According to Mel Quale, president of the Idaho Recreation Council, 70 percent of respondents opposed the bill. "We felt confident that, based on results of a narrower poll conducted in 2008, the majority of the 2nd District voters would oppose more Wilderness in the Boulders, but we were astonished by the amount of opposition," Quale said.
Those polled were asked the question: "As you may or may not know, the proposed Boulder White Cloud Wilderness will designate 319,000 acres of the Boulder-White Cloud Roadless area as "Wilderness" and eliminate many historic recreation uses such as mountain biking and snowmobiling. Thinking about this, do you favor or oppose this Wilderness proposal?" A surprising 70 percent were against the bill, 14 percent were unsure and only 16 percent favored it.
Quale added, "I hope the results of this poll will give Congressman Simpson some pause for thought about his pursuit of Wilderness designation of the Boulder White Clouds and encourage him to listen to what his constituents are saying. The Boulder White Clouds are well managed as part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Those polled in the 2nd District spoke clearly, `leave them alone.'"
Is designated wilderness the best way to protect the land?
Wilderness designation is often touted as the only way to protect our federal public lands; the choice is Wilderness or unfettered development. This is, of course, patently false. Our federal public lands are protected by a multiplicity of laws addressing land, water and wildlife. They are subject to the National Environmental Policy Act and full public review. Comprehensive resource management plans are required with input from the public. In the case of the Boulder White Cloud area, it is already protected in perpetuity as part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Once an area is designated as Wilderness the tools available to managers are severely limited. For example, trails must be maintained with primitive tools, an expensive proposition that, in these days of shrinking budgets, has left many of the trails in existing Wildernesses unmaintained and in poor condition. The lack of working trail drainage leads to erosion; logs blocking the trails lead to user created bypasses, damage to vegetation and more erosion. The lack of a working trail system curtails access and cuts even those few "primitive and unconfined types of recreation" permitted in Wilderness.
Recreation is allowed, but only primitive forms of recreation and only to the extent that they do not affect the Wilderness resource or opportunities for solitude. All forms of motorized or mechanized transportation are prohibited, including bicycles. There are some exceptions to the prohibitions for certain prior existing uses, administrative activities and emergencies, but they are very limited.
Wilderness provides habitat for wildlife, but managers are not allowed to manipulate the habitat to benefit any species, endangered or not. If, for example, a landslide blocks a stream used by migrating salmon, the barrier, formed by a natural process, should not be removed.
How will a Wilderness bill in the Boulder White Cloud Mountains impact access?
Idaho, like much of the West, is a growing state. We have seen a population growth of nearly 30 percent in the past decade or so. And we are becoming more urban, with more than 80 percent of our population now living in town. With all of this growth, there is a need to increase recreational opportunities for the public, not to ban recreation where it already exists.
Idaho is a state full of folks who like to recreate. Our region of the country has the highest rate-more than 80 percent-of people who regularly participate in outdoor recreation. As more rural land continues to be developed, and there are fewer open spaces to enjoy, the public will increasingly turn to the federal public lands for recreational activities and the scenic beauty that comes with them.
The most popular activities today include bird watching, hiking, backpacking, snowmobiling and off-road driving. Unfortunately the current version of the ever evolving Boulder White Cloud Wilderness bill would close 319,000 acres in three new Wildernesses-or the equivalent of almost 500 square miles-to all motorized recreation activities and mountain biking. This would have a direct impact on people throughout the West and particularly in Idaho.
How does designated wilderness impact the economy of Idaho?
Many parts of Idaho are in dire need of economic development and revitalization. In the 1st Congressional District, several rural counties dominated by federal lands are at or near double-digit unemployment. Several of these include or are adjacent to some of Idaho's 5 million acres of already designated Wilderness. Wilderness has not exactly been a remedy for their economic woes. In fact, the effect has been just the opposite. Locked-up forever under the world's most restrictive land designation, many of the uses normally occurring on federal public land are flatly prohibited, and associated economic benefits severely constrained. It is estimated that less than 3 percent of the public uses designated Wilderness areas.
In contrast, those areas that accommodate popular recreation activities like snowmobiling are faring much better. For example, a recent study by the University of Idaho shows that Valley County, the fourth most popular snowmobile destination in the nation, is reaping tremendous economic benefits. The study report concluded that a snowmobile visitor spends on average $317 per person, per trip, with almost $300 of that being spent in Valley County. The total amount spent by snowmobilers during the winter of 2004-2005, a relatively poor snow year, was more than $3 million.
Similar benefits are found in other parts of Idaho, including the Stanley area where snowmobiling is the major component of their winter economy. Designation of the proposed Wildernesses in the Boulder White Clouds would, of course, terminate snowmobiling in one of Stanley's most popular snowmobiling attractions, significantly impacting its economic base.
Idahoans have been using the Boulder White Cloud Mountains in a responsible manner for decades. A Wilderness designation is not necessary to ensure the land will be protected for future generations. The net results of Wilderness designation could, in fact, result in loss of protection. Devastation by insects, catastrophic fires and other natural events are part of the Wilderness condition. Mother Nature will be in control and the fact is that this "mother's touch" is not often compassionate and rarely gentle.