Adventure December 16, 2015
The Long Path to Wilderness
Congressman Simpson Triumphs in a Decade-Long Quest

How Congressman Mike Simpson forged unanimous consent for House Bill 1138, to designate as wilderness 275,665 acres in that part of Idaho known as the Boulder-White Clouds, is the stuff of a compelling Netflix “House of Cards” episode. A Republican with plenty of anti-wilderness colleagues, Simpson’s achievement harkens to the 1960s, younger years he spent on horseback in the Sawtooth and Teton Mountains when wilderness policy was in its infancy.

Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League (ICL) and a 30-year wilderness advocate, thinks that, despite Simpson’s decade of failed attempts to deliver an Idaho wilderness bill, his stature as a congressman has grown while serving on the House Appropriations Committee because people simply like him. It didn’t hurt that he and former House Speaker John Boehner are close, Johnson said. Johnson flew in to join Simpson, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other wilderness supporters in the Oval Office when President Barack Obama signed the “Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act,” Friday, August 7, 2015, just as the last members of the fractious 114th Congress slipped away for summer recess.

Boulder White Cloud Wilderness Area Map: When President Obama signed the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act, three wilderness areas were added to Idaho, totaling nearly 276,000 acres.

The three new and adjacent wilderness areas in the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains are the 106-square-mile Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness, the 142-square-mile White Clouds Wilderness, both being managed as part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and the 183-square-mile Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness, which covers 145 square miles of national forest land, and, on the east side of the White Clouds, 37 square miles supervised by the Bureau of Land Management.

 “What Congressman Simpson was able to do was get everybody to the table in a very collaborative fashion, to where he got the wilderness preservationists, the hikers, the backpackers, the horse people, the motorized users, including snowmobile, ATV, and motorcycle people, to all agree to a management plan for everything that is included in this bill,” Senator Jim Risch said on the Senate floor when the bill made it over its final hurdle August 4. “Congressman Simpson was tenacious on this. He gets the full credit for this. I think Idahoans will truly appreciate this for many years.”

A number of folks, especially many in the mountain biking community, believe the Boulder-White Clouds landscape—an area where the snowpack feeds the massive diversity of flora and fauna in the greater Columbia River Basin, its river corridors the lifeblood of the famous five species of anadromous Pacific salmon—could have been better managed as a national monument. Nonetheless, the wilderness designation is a hard-fought milestone in the state’s legacy as a wilderness state. Not since 1980 under the leadership of Senator Frank Church had an Idaho delegation successfully gotten a wilderness bill for national forest lands to a president’s desk. President Obama specifically noted that Simpson had achieved passage of the bill without a single “no” vote, probably a first for a stand-alone wilderness bill in any Congress.

Many aspects of the Boulder-White Clouds story come down to the numbers, even boiled down to the number 42, the atomic number for molybdenum. The precious element exists in various mineral deposits found under Castle Peak in the White Cloud Mountains. A quest in the late 1960s by the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASRCO) to mine molybdenum from the picturesque mountain catalyzed former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus’ career. Andrus, together with Senator Church, was instrumental in stopping the mine by supporting the establishment in 1972 of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. In the western portion of the new recreation area, the Sawtooth Wilderness was added to the young wilderness preservation system; however, in the eastern portion of the SNRA, the Boulder-White Clouds, mining interest could not be entirely quashed. 

“I believe that when God goes on vacation he goes to the Boulder-White Clouds.”

In the name of compromise, conservationists had to be content with a Wilderness Study Area designation for the Boulder-White Clouds, which, as an administrative grey area for public land agencies, gave rise to management that allowed increasing recreational use like motorcycling and mountain biking. Bicycle riders took to the solitude of the Boulder-White Clouds, in particular the Castle Divide and Antz Basin areas. The new designation, however, has made the two areas off limits to bicycles and other mechanized transport. Naturally, organizations like the International Mountain Bicycling Association and the Wood River Bike Coalition supported the monument option that could have ensured bicycle access to the area. 

“Getting wilderness passed has never been easy,” Simpson said from Washington, D.C., as he prepared to travel back to Idaho during fall recess to attend an ICL party, a celebration with a number of people who have lobbied for many years for more Idaho wilderness. In the end, it seems only mountain bikers felt left out in the cold.

Ed Cannady, who works for the SNRA and has logged as many miles as any human in the Boulder-White Clouds, says one of the greatest ecological benefits of the new law is that it set forth a path for ranchers to retire their grazing rights in and around the new wilderness areas. The buyouts happen with private funds, and Simpson said some ranchers have already availed themselves of the opportunity to retire. This stipulation of the law, Simpson said, made the wilderness component more palatable to some.

More than anything else in Simpson’s decade-long campaign to secure more wilderness land in Idaho, his recent success may have had to do with the giant photograph of Castle Peak he took and that hangs in his Washington office. Just such an image taken by Ernie Day during the early fight for the Boulder-White Clouds helped to galvanize people against mining.

“I believe that when God goes on vacation he goes to the Boulder-White Clouds.” By now, that’s a famous Simpson quote. Simpson also says that part of nailing down wilderness is the surety it gives to everyone with interests on the edge. “People know where they stand. With a national monument, everything is up in the air, and it can be overturned with the stroke of a pen by a future president.”

Roderick Nash, a one-time Elkhorn resident who maintains friendships in Idaho and wrote the seminal 1967 treatise, “Wilderness and the American Mind,” said the new wilderness designations in Idaho are something to celebrate, despite controversy over various compromises. 

Castle Peak stands tall in the White Clouds Range.

“I want to applaud the leaders who made these wilderness additions possible. There is a tendency to erode the concept of wilderness—to chip away at the edges,” he said during a telephone conversation from his home in Santa Barbara. “Idaho, in particular, is one of the states rich in wilderness. Idaho has a special responsibility to the nation and all other species to protect it.” 

Nash said, as a country and a people, we have come a long way from “the closing of the frontier” in 1890, the pivotal moment in history when wilderness began to be viewed as an asset rather than as an adversary. It is aesthetic muse, recreational outlet, even religious inspiration, “a purer expression of God’s work,” Nash theorized. Wilderness preservation has become a part of the national identity. “You know, we don’t have the big cathedrals of Europe,” Nash said. “We do have wilderness, wild country.”

Simpson says he thinks of wilderness as a nonpartisan issue, and he cherishes Thoreau’s saying: “In Wilderness is the preservation of the World.”

“I really believe that,” he said. 

At the signing of the bill in August, President Obama said, “I think everybody here knows that one of the prettiest states that we have with some of the greatest national treasures is the great state of Idaho.” The law brought the country’s tally of designated wilderness a pinch closer to 110 million acres in 759 parcels around the nation. They range in size from 6 acres at Pelican Island in Florida to more than 9 million acres at Wrangell-Saint Elias in Alaska. “I am very proud to be able to sign this piece of legislation,” he added.

This article appears in the Winter 2015-2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.