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Simpson's Wilderness Deal Hits a Snag

by Anna Means
The Challis Messenger, September 26, 2003

Farm Bureau pulls plug

The road to wilderness designation is no easy path, but recently another curve has come up and Congressman Mike Simpson is taking a “wait and see” attitude. The Custer County Farm Bureau chapter has withdrawn any support for a wilderness deal until environmental groups permanently withdraw from legal action on upper Snake River dam releases.

Simpson is working on a plan to end the endless debate on wilderness designation in central Idaho, and environmental groups are asking for water to help flush fish to the sea.

At first, or even second glance, there doesn’t seem to be a relationship between water flowing in the Snake and the Boulder White Clouds area where most watersheds feed the Salmon River.

Judy Bartlett with the Idaho Farm Bureau told the Messenger the link between the two “is the environmentalists.”

Custer County Farm Bureau President Rod Evans told the Messenger that irrigators across the state are “sick of everything being managed by lawsuit.” He said they’re tired of the struggle to negotiate with environmental groups. When the local chapter learned of a notice of intent to sue the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) on upper Snake River water, they decided to support their southern brethren.

Evans said if the environmental groups withdraw their intent to sue for the long term, not just 30 days, the local chapter will consider dealing with groups on the Boulder White Clouds wilderness.

Otherwise, Evans said, he sees the intent to sue down south as just another blackmail scheme for irrigators to accept a flush for fish.

In response to accusations that the local chapter is holding the wilderness resolution hostage, Evans said, “We can’t see any other way around it.”

Jerry Hawkins, also with the local Farm Bureau chapter, said the environmentalists are attacking the agriculture industry in southern Idaho and asked, “Where will it stop?” He said agricultural interests have tried to work with the groups, “but they’re trying to turn this place into a pre-European country and choke everyone out except recreationists.”

What it is
Late this summer the Idaho Conservation League (ICL), Idaho Rivers United (IRU), American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to sue the BOR and NOAA Fisheries if steps weren’t taken to ensure that the 10 upper Snake River dam projects complied with the Endangered Species Act by not harming salmon and steelhead.

Two weeks later the groups withdrew their Notice of Intent for at least 30 days after Senator Mike Crapo offered to arrange discussions on the matter. In a letter to the senator, ICL and IRU wrote they welcomed efforts to bring interested parties together for talks and said, “We believe it is appropriate to have such discussions and applaud your effort to bring the parties together in an effort to resolve our concerns without the need for filing litigation.”

Eye of the beholder,
Bartlett said the water users in southern Idaho feel the environmental agenda on the upper Snake is a serious threat to irrigated agriculture and its economy as well as a threat to wildlife habitat (including fish) and many different forms of recreation.

Bartlett said the environmental groups want all water out of BOR reservoirs starting with Jackson Lake on down.

This assertion, said Bill Sedivy, executive director of IRU, “is preposterous.” Justin Hayes, program director of ICL, said ideas that they want all the water “are not grounded in reality.”

At issue
Both Hayes and Sedivy said the BOR and state are required to work with lower Snake dams to ensure flows for out-migrating fish. One number, 427,000 acre feet, has been tossed around for years as the amount of water needed to give the fish a boost to the sea.

Hayes said the arrangement for water has been “willing seller, willing buyer” and while water has been released for fish, the magic number has not been met. He said it is partly because it’s been dry, partly because Congress hasn’t allocated the necessary money to pay for it and partly because some Idaho laws penalize people who sell their water.

Another element to the issue is that the lower Snake River biological opinion issued by NOAA Fisheries was deemed illegal by federal court. Hayes said that implies the upper Snake Biological Opinion also doesn’t make grade.

Hayes said they wanted to discuss issues with the BOR for the 2004 out-migration season and because the current biological opinion expires in 2005, they wanted to consult on a new plan and have it in place before the old one ends.

He said they sent a letter to that effect, but didn’t receive a certain reply from BOR. Hence, the Notice of Intent.

Hayes said they welcomed Crapo’s intervention, because it’s accomplishing what they wanted in the first place, which was time at the table to talk.

Meanwhile, people hoping to talk about wilderness are on hold.

Lindsay Slater, chief of staff for Simpson, said the congressman has adopted a “wait and see” attitude on wilderness discussions. Slater said Simpson is “very, very concerned” about laws that could threaten water and welcomes Crapo stepping in to find a solution.

Custer County Commissioner Lin Hintze is frustrated. He said he has one question for the Farm Bureau and that is, “What’s your alternative?” He said the last 30 years of negotiations have resulted in a loss for the county and “this time we have a chance to gain something. Saying no to everything has gotten us into a corner.”

Hintze said the Farm Bureau has not talked to the commissioners about wilderness negotiations, and he’s miffed they’ve withdrawn support without discussing it with the county leaders. He said he’s open to ideas but hasn’t heard from the organization. “Help me out,” he said.

Commissioner Wayne Butts said he understands the bureau’s position on wilderness and to a great extent agrees, but feels the recent trend is an opportunity to help the county by adding lands to the tax roll. He said he thought the bureau would probably support the county, “but they don’t feel confident that Simpson can push this land package through.”

Evans agreed, saying they could support Simpson’s concept of putting some public land into county ownership that ultimately would be managed for the county’s benefit. His organization doesn’t want any more wilderness but could support provisions that helped resource users and the county. Still, he said, they’re skeptical it will ever happen and want to see details before officially endorsing anything.

John Thompson, director of information for the Idaho Farm Bureau, said they have an official policy against more wilderness designation, but in reviewing Simpson’s concept, they are supportive of what might help the county.

Hayes said he thinks it’s odd that the Farm Bureau is withdrawing support for issues in which they haven’t been a player. He questions why they feel justified in derailing something that has local support when they haven’t been at the table to hammer out solutions.

Anna Means
Simpson's Wilderness Deal Hits a Snag
The Challis Messenger, September 26, 2003

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