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Tougher odds next time

Time is almost up on Idaho Representative Mike Simpson’s wilderness proposal, and it seems time now to reiterate a few things said in past months, in passing.

The core point is that what was Idaho’s best chance in two decades to add to its wilderness system probably will shortly evaporate, not to return for years to come.

None of this is to fault Simpson, whose work on the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which would set up wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds area, has been remarkable, truly skilled legislative work. (You could consider it a political version of fine craftsmanship.) The current edition of the Idaho Law Review is devoted largely to the settlement of the Nez Perce Tribe water right claims; in their various chapters, authors remark about how complex and carefully balanced the end proposal had to be in order to work. That work was te product of scores of professionals; in developing CIEDRA, Simpson was the focal figure personally putting all the pieces together – sometimes adding something, getting an agreement there, dropping out something here. The end product still didn’t satisfy everyone, but that’s the way with compromises.

No Idaho wilderness bill has gotten past the earliest stages of congressional process since well back into the 80s. Illustrious figures like Cecil Andrus and James McClure bashed up against that rock wall. Simpson managed to build wide support for his plan and get it through a U.S. House where wilderness skeptics are legion, and into Senate hearings.

There it got held up, as Idaho Senator Larry Craig pushed for additions. Now Congress is about to adjourn for the year, likely at the end of this week, and if the Senate quits without acting on CIEDRA, as seems likely, it will have to start over again next year.

Given the support CIEDRA picked up in the last couple of years, one might think it could pass then. And Simpson may try. But he may have additional hurdles he didn’t face this year. First, he will be operating in a Democratic Congress, one inclined to give a lot more weight to environmental groups than the last one was. Simpson may find the careful political calculus he evolved has to be rejiggered, and that alone could bust the deal.

There’s also potential change on the home front, as new Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter may be a sketic of whatever emerges next time. And Otter’s replacement as 1st district congressman, Bill Sali, has a no-wilderness approach in mind.

Getting this done was always extremely tough. If the bill doesn’t pass in the next three days, it’ll get a lot tougher.

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