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Commentaries and editorials

Wilderness Proposal Tops List
of 2005 Environment Stories

by Steve Benson, Staff Writer
Idaho Mountain Express, December 30, 2005

Major issues still await federal action

Six and a half years ago, Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, announced his plans to create a bill that would, among other things, designate 300,011 acres in the Boulder and White Clouds mountains north of Ketchum as wilderness.

In October, the bill, known as the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, or CIEDRA, finally went before Congress' House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. The fate of the bill won't be known until it receives a full congressional hearing, which won't occur before February 2006, when Congress reconvenes.

CIEDRA is a not a straightforward bill created simply to protect a cherished chunk of wild land. Rather, it is among the most complex, compromise-ridden wilderness bills ever proposed. And it appears that seemingly everyone can find an aspect of the bill they dislike.

In exchange for the 300,011 acres of wilderness, Custer County, which is comprised of 96 percent federal land, would gain control of anywhere from 2,000 to 6,000 acres of federal land. Most of that land would be developed to boost property taxes and provide economic relief for the remote and relatively depressed county.

Motorized corridors would also bisect portions of the wilderness to maintain and attract the growing community of off-highway-vehicle users.

The federal land giveaways and motorized concessions have polarized the environmental community—some feel the bill is an insult and inherently wrong, while others feel it is the last best chance to designate wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds, an effort that dates back almost 30 years.

In mid-December, Simpson made an announcement that could make it even more difficult for environmentalists to support the bill.

The congressman may lump the sale of a stone quarry, which sits on public land near the city of Clayton in Custer County, into the bill. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., had initially included the sale of the quarry in his highly controversial mining reform, which was part of a federal budget bill. But in December, Western lawmakers shot down the mining reform portion of the budget bill, which is when Simpson expressed interest in attaching the quarry sale to CIEDRA.

The land would be sold to L&W Stone, which is currently the operator of the quarry. The sale would allow L&W Stone's owner, Scott Laine, of California, to bypass certain court-ordered environmental regulations.

The potential deal is particularly foul to environmentalists—Laine is a Republican who has donated several thousand dollars in recent years to the Republican Party, including about $3,000 to Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

But others, like Custer County Commissioner Lin Hintze, feel the sale would secure the future of the quarry and its employees.

The quarry is Custer County's second largest employer with 80 workers.

According to The Associated Press, unemployment in Custer County exceeds Idaho's 3.6 percent rate, and residents earn just 80 percent of the state's median household income.

"How is Custer County going to support itself if it's all wilderness, without the quarry, without this land?" Hintze asked the AP. "Why can't a county that's 96 percent federal land have a little bit back?"

Roadless debate heats up

There are 9.3 million acres of roadless forest land in Idaho, an enormous amount second only to that of Alaska.

Of those 9.3 million acres, 1.37 million were set aside for future wilderness designation. About 2.3 million acres were categorized as backcountry—similar to wilderness but open to some motorized travel—and the remaining 5.6 million acres were slated for mixed uses and road development.

In 2001, President Bill Clinton enacted the Roadless Rule, which sought to maintain the status of roadless lands across the country and virtually eliminate the risk of future development.

In 2005, the Bush administration announced it was killing the Roadless Rule due to ineffective management plans and excessive litigation—the Roadless Rule spurred nine lawsuits in federal district courts in five states, including Idaho.

The process of forming a new roadless rule, dubbed the Final Rule by the Bush administration, started at the state level. Last summer, state governors asked each county that contains roadless land to develop recommendations for how they want those lands to be managed in the future.

Recommendations could include additional motorized access or road building, fewer roads, status quo, etc. Those recommendations are due in Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's office by March 1. If Kempthorne wishes to pursue any of the recommendations, he must petition the secretary of agriculture by Nov. 13, 2006.

Conservationists, anglers and some hunters are fearful that the Final Rule will subject cherished, virgin lands to road building, excessive off-highway-vehicle use, mining, logging, or other development projects. Studies have indicated that road building takes an enormous toll on fish and wildlife.

Jim Caswell, a former national forest supervisor and current administrator of the Idaho Office of Species Conservation, was hired as Kempthorne's point man on the Final Rule in Idaho. Caswell feels the development concerns are overblown and that the new rule is mainly designed to enhance land management. He added that it will also help boost the health of several forests, which due to years of fire suppression have become a tangled rat's nest of dead and dying trees.

Controlled burns and some thinning may be enacted to rid the forests of the mess and improve elk, deer and moose habitat—to the delight of many hunters.

Blaine County commissioners say they will submit a status quo recommendation for the county's 368,000 roadless acres. "Blaine County has a long history of wanting to preserve and not create more roads," Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael said in August. "And that's (the commissioners') preference."

Custer County, which contains 1.4 million roadless acres, will ask for the opposite. Custer County Commisioner Lin Hintze said he'd like to see some new roads, particularly those that could act as connectors, but stresses the primary goal will be to maintain what roads already exist.

Salmon and Yellowstone cutthroat

More than 2 million chinook and 30,000 sockeye salmon used to spawn in Idaho's waters in an average year.

In 2005, just 36,876 chinook and 17 sockeye salmon made it into Idaho past Lower Granite Dam, the last unnatural barrier between the state and the Pacific Ocean on the Lower Snake River.

Although protected under the Endangered Species Act (chinook are threatened and sockeye are endangered), both subspecies continue to struggle and their future doesn't appear bright.

Studies indicate removal of the four Lower Snake River dams provides the only chance for salmon recovery, and even survival.

In early December, Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig killed the $1.3 million in federal funding for the Fish Passage Center, which counted protected salmon, steelhead and other fish in the Columbia River drainage.

Another blow to the fish came a couple weeks later when the Bush administration and the state of Idaho announced they would appeal a court ruling that deemed the Bush administration's salmon plan for the Columbia and Snake rivers illegal.

Meanwhile, a resident population of fish native to Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and northern parts of Utah and Nevada are also struggling.

Yellowstone cutthroat now occupy less than 20 percent of their historic habitat, and their numbers have declined by more than 60 percent in Yellowstone Lake, in Wyoming, which was considered their stronghold. They're no longer found in Utah and Nevada.

Their decline can be attributed to habitat loss from development, water shortages from irrigation and drought, and competition from non-native species of trout.

Introduced rainbow trout are threatening to erase pure Yellowstone cutthroat through hybridization in several rivers and streams in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

In Yellowstone Lake, the highly piscivorous lake trout, which were illegally introduced in the early 1980s and discovered in 1994, are literally eating away at the population of Yellowstone cutthroat. An average mature lake trout in Yellowstone Lake will consume more than 40 mature cutthroat a year, according to a recent report from Yellowstone National Park biologists.

Several projects from federal agencies and groups like Trout Unlimited have helped curb the decline of the Yellowstone cutthroat in areas, but the species' future is still uncertain.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently in the process of determining whether Yellowstone cutthroat warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, with a decision expected Feb. 14, 2006.

Federal agencies and some local activist groups are opposed to a listing, claiming it will complicate the recovery process and harm the fishing economy.

Others, like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, feel that a failure to list the fish will put its future in serious jeopardy.

If the fish are listed, it could have greater implications than many could possibly imagine. Yellowstone cutthroat, sockeye salmon and chinook salmon are all in need of more water. Yellowstone cutthroat require extra flows in the late spring and summer to stimulate spawning. Young salmon, or smolt, require extra flows at about the same time to help them pass the four dams on the Lower Snake River during their migration to the Pacific Ocean. With both species competing for water that is becoming increasingly short, there may be added pressure to remove the four Lower Snake River dams.

INL plan stirs the masses

The U.S. Department of Energy wants to produce 330 pounds of plutonium-238 over the next 30 years at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), which is located between Arco and Idaho Falls in the eastern Idaho desert.

Plutonium-238 is a non-weapons-grade form of plutonium. It would be used to power batteries for deep space missions and for classified national security missions.

Last summer, the DOE held a series of public hearings in Idaho and western Wyoming, with mixed reactions from the public. Some citizens were supportive of the project, claiming it would create jobs and that nuclear energy is a safe and necessary energy alternative.

In Sun Valley, more than 200 people attended the hearing, which turned somewhat hostile. Of the 32 citizens and special-interest groups who spoke at the three-hour hearing, only two expressed support for the project. The rest were vehemently opposed.

Many expressed concern that such a project would attract terrorist activity and harm the environment, including the Snake River Plain aquifer. Additional concerns surrounded the potential for a catastrophic accident as well as cleanup efforts at the site, which have not been completed.

"Accidents happen all the time, you guys know this," Brian Ross, of Hailey, told a panel of DOE officials at the hearing.

"Plutonium-238 has killed and will continue to kill."

Richard Gouley, of Bellevue, expressed mistrust over the DOE's intentions.

"You've really insulted my intelligence with your graphs and inability to answer my questions," he said. "But coming to us under the current administration, I don't expect anything but lies from you."

A final decision from the DOE is pending.

Meanwhile, in late November, Congress announced that it would like to resume nuclear fuel reprocessing—a necessary step in the creation of a nuclear bomb—at the INL. The United States hasn't reprocessed commercial spent fuel since the 1970s, and the practice was eliminated by President George Bush in 1992.

An official announcement from the federal government regarding nuclear fuel reprocessing is expected by the spring of 2006.


Steve Benson, Staff Writer
Wilderness Proposal Tops List of 2005 Environment Stories
Idaho Mountain Express, December 30, 2005

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