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How a Republican congressman got a wilderness protected unanimously during the Obama Administration

Updated: May 9

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson and Idaho Conservation League Director Rick Johnson were sitting in The Mayflower Hotel’s dining room in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 14, 2014, before the rest of the guests filed in for a gala celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

The two men came from different backgrounds and political ideologies. But over the past 16 years they had formed a

Johnson was a wilderness warrior who had fought to protect Idaho’s millions of acres of roadless forests, canyonlands, range and desert as federally protected wilderness or as national monuments. Simpson is -a dentist who rose through Idaho’s conservative Republican Legislature to be its House Speaker before he moved up to Congress in 1998. There he had become one of the most powerful members of the Appropriations Committee that decides how federal money will be spent.

They came together in 2000 with the common goal of protecting one of Idaho’s most iconic wild places, the Boulder and White Cloud mountains. The two ranges in central Idaho and the adjacent East Fork of the Salmon River watersheds are a rich ecosystem that includes headwaters for salmon and steelhead that spawn more than 800 miles from the Pacific. Castle Peak in the heart of the White Clouds is the mountain that elected a governor, Cecil Andrus in 1970. He went on to preserve more than 100 million acres of wild lands in Alaska as Interior Secretary and was a partner in Johnson and Simpson’s quest.

Andrus was pushing President Barack Obama to preserve the Boulder -White Clouds by designating it a national monument using the Antiquities Act of 1906. The former logger had convinced President Jimmy Carter to use the law Teddy Roosevelt protected the Grand Canyon with to protect the Alaska lands. To build a national coalition Andrus went to Johnson and Craig Gehrke of the Wilderness Society’s Boise office.

Obama’s point man on his national monument campaign was John Podesta, a man who became best known by his hacked e-mails stolen by Russian agents and leaked to help the Trump campaign by Wikileaks. He was the keynote speaker at the dinner but beforehand he was led to Simpson’s table. “I hear you want to talk about BWC,” Podesta said, chuckling.

Simpson had just won a landslide victory in a high-stakes primary campaign against a tea party candidate funded by the Club for Growth. He tried repeatedly and failed to get a Boulder-White Clouds protection bill through Congress since 2004 and Johnson was hoping Simpson would tell Podesta a monument designation wouldn’t blow up in their faces. Podesta had revealed earlier in the evening they were going forward with the monument.

But Simpson had another idea.

He told Podesta that he planned to make another run at his bill to protect the area as wilderness. He wanted Obama to give him six months in 2015 to get it passed.

“He told me to go for it,” Simpson said.


Bill Manny with Castle Peak in the background

In the beginning

The story began in the 1960s with the fight to save a mountain, Castle Peak in central Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains. Most Idahoans see remote Castle Peak only in photos or when flying over the area. J. Robb Brady the late publisher of the Idaho Falls Post Register, showed me Castle Peak from the Big Boulder lakes on the east side of the area on a hike in 1990.

He was the first newspaperman to editorialize against turning Castle Peak into an open pit mine in 1968. His editorials caught the attention of Andrus the former Orofino, Idaho logger who was looking for a conservation issue for his longshot gubernatorial race against incumbent Republican Don Samuelson. The Democrat made stopping Asarco Corp. from replacing Castle Peak with an open-pit molybdenum mine in the heart of the White Cloud Mountains the central issue of his 1970 race.

But the White Clouds were reserved for further study to decide whether they should become a national park. When that study went nowhere, the future of the area was left up to the U.S. Forest Service.  In the 1980s, the agency designated the White Clouds and the adjacent Boulder Mountains wilderness study areas, which meant it was supposed to keep the wilderness characteristics preserved until Congress decided whether to protect them or not.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, snowmobilers and motorcyclists had plowed into the heart of the White Clouds on trails and old, otherwise disappearing mining roads. The Forest Service failed to close the areas to the motorized use despite the clear directive of the Wilderness Act o9f 1964.  These users were loud, active and organized.

And in sprawling, Connecticut-sized Custer County, 4,300 residents struggled to get by. Mines that once provided jobs have closed or are winding down. Net income from farming and ranching plummeted 80 percent since 1970, according to the Sonoran Institute think tank. The tax base is also choked off, with 95 percent of the land in the county owned by the federal government.

When I arrived in Idaho in 1985 then-Sen. Jim McClure had just failed to pass a statewide wilderness bill that would have only protected 500,000 acres and released the rest of the 9 million acres of roadless lands to multiple uses including logging and mining. That near miss and the lack of protection from the Forest Service against new motorized trails, prompted Pat Ford, a Boise conservationist and Lynne Stone of Hailey along with others to form the Boulder-White Clouds Council, connecting the two areas in the drive for protection for the first time.

Stone, a photographer and trail guidebook author, also pushed to expand the area to include lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the East Fork of the Salmon River watershed that included the east side of the White Clouds and Boulders and Jerry Peak, which she considered equally deserving of wilderness protection. She led me on short hikes in and around the area showing how historic mining had destroyed salmon runs in some of the Salmon River’s tributaries and how overgrazing by cattle was causing increased erosion and reducing water quality.

After his term as Interior Secretary ended, Andrus returned to Idaho and was re-elected to a third term as governor in 1986.

He joined McClure in a failed attempt to pass a 1.8-million-acre statewide wilderness bill in 1988 that included a portion of the White Clouds. The Idaho Conservation League’s Johnson was among the universal opposition from environmentalists, which was shared by the timber industry and motorized users. Years later, when he was fighting for Simpson’s bill, he acknowledged that he and the conservation community had missed an opportunity by not embracing the bill that would have protected many areas as wilderness that have since been logged, overrun with motorized users or mountain bikes.

Brady named his ranch in the Sawtooth Valley the White Cloud Ranch because you could see its white limestone peaks from the cattle pasture, he leased to ranchers who lived in the East Fork of the Salmon River valley. From 1990 on until 2005 we gathered with other backpackers for an annual sojourn into the mountains where he would tell every hiker he encountered to support a bill to make the White Clouds wilderness.


Wolves of the White Clouds

I also flew over the area with wolf biologists who were tracking B36 one of the wolves released with a radio-collar in 1996. She had formed the White Clouds Pack with an uncollared and previously unknown wolf that had lived in the area prior to the reintroduction of wolves in 1995. The pack stayed above 10,000 feet elevation much of the time. The biologists would say where they denned because of the proximity to ranches below. In 1998, the year I flew over her, B36 had a large litter of nine pups.  Later that year they migrated over the top of Boulder Mountains into the southern end of Sawtooth Valley and the headwaters of the Big Wood River.

The White Clouds also were the on and off home of B2, “the old man” who formed several packs in the East Fork and the wilderness. He had roamed widely for many years after his release and had disappeared for more than a year before he was detected with a female in 2001 and they formed the Wildhorse Pack centered in the Pioneer Mountains just south of the Boulder-White Clouds.

Andrus never gave up seeking more protection for the White Clouds, moving into a mentoring role for conservationists like Johnson after he left the governor’s chair in 1995. Andrus had learned long ago the power of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which empowered the president to protect public lands with the stroke of a pen. In 1978 Alaska wilderness and national park legislation had been stopped repeatedly by the powerful Alaska congressional delegation, especially Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.

Andrus proposed to Carter to use the Antiquities Act to set 56 million acres of Alaska land aside as national monuments, preventing future development with the stroke of a pen. By doing so, they put the ball in the court of Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young and wilderness opponents, who would need a bill to override Carter and Andrus.

“Can I do that,” Carter asked Andrus.

“You have the authority, sir,” Andrus responded.

Pat Ford’s advocacy on behalf of the White Clouds with Stone triggered a “aha” moment in 1990 when he realized that the wild salmon that still spawned in the East Fork and the main Salmon and tributaries that surround the White Clouds on three sides were going extinct. He called urging me and the Post Register where I was now the editorial page editor to call for dramatic action to save the fish, which carry energy and nutrients from the Pacific to the White Clouds and Boulders where they spawned and died. He went on to head the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition of anglers, sporting goods companies, environmental groups, Indian tribes and communities who forced federal agencies to list Snake River salmon as threatened and endangered and to dramatically increase conservation measures for the fish.


More than a wilderness campaign

In 1999, Simpson, newly elected to Congress, first spoke at the Idaho Conservation League’s Annual meeting on Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area called Wild Idaho.

This was a hostile full house of environmentalists, most of whom did not vote for him. Simpson did not pander to them.

He told them what he thought about “big government” and about budget deficits and about environmentalists who go to Washington and to court to get what they want. But he told them he was willing to work to protect the Boulder-White Clouds as wilderness, if they were willing to work with him.

Simpson was largely a traditional Idaho conservative Republican coming from the small rural town of Blackfoot. But he was a voracious reader and while Mormon, he smoked cigarettes and drank cocktails. He even told Idaho Statesman political columnist Dan Popkey he tried marijuana. But Popkey had to pry out of him that he had given a donation to the Idaho Conservation League.

The night before Simpson’s Wild Idaho speech Johnson and Popkey talked in the Redfish Lake Lodge bar.

“You can work with Mike,” Popkey told Johnson. “He's not who you might think he is."

Thye next day Johnson asked Simpson why he was willing to admit he smoked pot in college but was unwilling to acknowledge his membership in the Idaho Conservation League.

“I think that says more about you than it does me,” Simpson told the surly crowd. He got barely polite applause when he finished.

Johnson surprised his followers that night by saying, “He's right and we're going to change that.”

Johnson and Simpson became allies and friends. Simpson’s motivation began as a goal to do what Idaho leaders from Sen. Frank Church to Gov. Cecil Andrus to Sen. James McClure were unable to do — protect a beloved Idaho landscape.  Along the way he began to visit the area first flying over it to more than a half a dozen hikes into its core. He became one of the strongest voices in Idaho for preserving the wildness that makes the state unique.

“Wilderness is not a Democratic ideal, wilderness is not a Republican ideal. Wilderness is an American ideal,” he told the crowd at the Mayflower.

At a time when most Western Republicans either finesse or support transferring control over federal lands to their states, Simpson had become a defender of the public domain.

“A lot of the reason a lot of us love the West and a lot of us love Idaho is because a lot of us love public lands,” Simpson said.

Johnson shifted the league’s tactics and strategy. Rather than using the courts and connections in Washington, D.C., the league worked collaboratively with communities and industry to find common ground and compromise that benefits all Idahoans. His young and increasingly professional staff are as comfortable in the Idaho Capitol and in county courthouses as they are in Congress.

When a big company comes to Simpson with a proposal that might have environmental implications, he told the Wild Idaho audience Saturday, he sends them to Johnson. They will be better off resolving any environmental challenges by working with the ICL first, rather than simply ignoring their interests, Simpson said.

When investors were trying to build a coal-fired fertilizer plant in American Falls, Simpson sent them to Johnson. His staff persuaded the national Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign to sign on to Idaho’s first carbon emissions air quality permit in 2009, based on the plant’s commitment to cut carbon emissions by half. It was likely the only coal plant the Sierra Club did not oppose.

“Conservation can complement Idaho’s conservative values when we don’t look like we’re trying to overthrow them,” Johnson said.

Simpson often used Johnson as his go-between to national environmental interests who did not like Simpson’s challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency or his budget cuts. He was a leader in protecting the Land and Water Conservation Fund that provided critical funding for dozens of environmental programs.

Simpson was confident he could pass the bill in 2015, even after it was blocked do this time what he had been blocked in 2006 and 2010. The eight-term congressman had developed strong relationships in both the House and the Senate and was a close confidant of House Speaker John Boehner. Simpson was the chairman of a key Appropriations subcommittee, a cardinal in political slang, who had wide influence over federal land and environmental agencies.

Simpson’s and Johnson’s joint quest began in 2000 when Simpson hired Lindsay Slater, a former Oregon Cattlemen’s Association staffer who had carried the Steens Mountain Wilderness bill through Congress for Republican Rep. Greg Walden.

 Now Simpson’s chief of staff, Slater’s main job was to get the Boulder-White Clouds protected as wilderness. But Johnson’s monument campaign was going forward without Simpson, and Johnson was not happy that Simpson had convinced Podesta to delay the designation. Johnson and his allies wanted the area protected, and the monument was the most certain method, even if it meant less protection.

 “We were taken to task for that,” said Marcia Argust of The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C. “(Simpson) asked us why would you give up on wilderness protection — a higher level of protection for the landscape?” The rest of the Idaho delegation had shopped a letter against the national monument designation pushed by the Idaho Farm Bureau and others, a punch in the face of Johnson’s campaign. Simpson refused to go along. “I didn’t want a national monument, but I didn’t want to rule out a national monument,” he said. “If I can’t get a bill crafted by Idaho, the next best thing was a monument.”


 Risch went from simply opposing the monument to becoming Simpson’s most important ally. He credits the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board for the change of heart. It happened at the newspaper’s endorsement interview with Risch in October, when it asked Risch why he didn’t introduce his own Boulder-White Clouds bill if he didn’t like Simpson’s. That question “was a pivotal moment in the Boulder-White Clouds (debate),” Risch said. “My dissatisfaction with my own answer really made me rethink where we should go with the issue.”

 Risch cleared his schedule for a day and began talking to local officials, agriculture groups and Sandra Mitchell, executive director of the Idaho Recreation Council, which represented motorized recreation. He asked them what it would take for them to support Simpson. “Leave our trails out of the wilderness,” Mitchell said she told him. Mitchell and the other groups had already been talking with Johnson, who with Gehrke had been gathering comments from all sides since 2013 for the monument proposal.

They had reached an agreement with mountain bikers to keep all their trails open, and Mitchell’s supporters were hopeful they might get the same treatment in the wilderness bill. Mitchell’s and Johnson’s groups had clashed repeatedly over the years and the two leaders had spoken rarely before the monument talks. But they were beginning to trust and even like each other. “When you get to know someone, I think you see beyond the issues to the person,” Mitchell said. In early January, Risch called Simpson and went to his office to talk. “He told me he thought we could get this done but I had to go out and meet with a lot of people,” Simpson said.


 Simpson took his advice and, with chief of staff Lindsay Slater by his side, traveled around the area talking to Custer County officials, ranchers, Stanley city leaders, the Idaho Farm Bureau and Mitchell. When he was done, they wrote a new bill that put back land transfers for low-income housing, cemeteries, water towers and waste-transfer sites. The bill also left all of the motorized trails and snowmobile areas intact, slicing tens of thousands of acres off his 2010 and 2006 bills. And while he opened up more areas for mountain bikes, he did not honor Johnson’s and Gehrke’s deal that allowed the bikers into two high-mountain areas. Johnson, Gehrke’s Wilderness Society and Simpson’s other long-time supporters decided to back the bill, bitter pill that it was.

They took heat, especially from the mountain bike community, even though they didn’t give up on the monument campaign. “My job is to get the job done and this is the moment,” Johnson said. “The opportunity evolved and I was multidenominational.” Johnson also wasn’t sure he could get it done.

Risch twisted arms and cajoled the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on which he served to hold a hearing in May. Johnson testified for all of the groups endorsing the bill, while Brett Stevenson from the Wood River Bike Coalition testified against it. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso asked Johnson whether he would drop his monument campaign if Simpson’s bill passed. He said yes. “If I hadn’t made that commitment already, I wouldn’t have been invited to testify,” Johnson said.

Simpson reached out to Utah Republican Rep. Robb Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, to get an early hearing in the House. Bishop had planned to do all wilderness bill hearings in September and to demand that all had language that prevented future national monument designations in the area. Simpson said he would pull his bill if he had to add that. But Simpson and Bishop are old friends. Simpson said he had to get his bill done by the August recess or Obama’s monument effort would move forward. Bishop set the hearing for June 15 with no public witnesses, only representatives of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

 But there was an obstacle: Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador. He and Simpson have never talked about Simpson’s bill and were not in the hearing room together. Labrador grilled the agency witnesses, raising the possibility that he might seek an amendment akin to what Bishop was proposing — to limit future national monument designations. Bishop had a markup planned for July 9 to move uncontroversial bills to the floor for unanimous consent. When its agenda came out July 6, Simpson’s bill wasn’t on it. Simpson’s staff asked about the holdup and was told Labrador might have an amendment. Labrador went to Johnson’s office the same day for their first talk. “We spent an hour together, it was super candid,” Johnson said. “Frankly I enjoyed it, and I think he enjoyed it, too.” And Simpson’s bill? “I’m not going to get in his way,” Johnson said Labrador told him.

I called Mitchell the next morning, who had the clout to make things happen in the House Committee. The bill was not on the agenda, I told her. She was on vacation in Alaska. She said “I will get back to you.”

She emailed Labrador’s staff to see what happened. “It was just a misunderstanding,” Mitchell said. “Raul’s a man of integrity. When he said he did not want to kill that bill, he meant it.” She got the bill on the agenda and it passed the committee, and then passed the House by unanimous consent on July 27.


Simpson never doubted he could get the bill through the House, but the Senate was another thing. In the years before the current highly partisan atmosphere, locally driven bills could get through relatively easy. Slater had moved the Steens Mountain bill through the Senate in 2000 using a tactic called “holding at the desk.” The Senate majority leader would hold a bill passed by the House until the end of the day, when the Senate journal would reflect that the bill had unanimous consent and had passed. But before that, the bill had to be “hotlined,” which meant every member had to be informed it was there and could place a hold on the bill or ask for more information.

Slater told Simpson about the strategy in February. When the bill passed the House, Simpson had Speaker John Boehner ask Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to use it. Meanwhile, Risch got the Senate committee to mark up his identical bill, and it was sent to the floor July 30.

 Stanley resident and Grammy-winning songwriter and singer Carole King, who opposed Simpson’s wilderness bills, re-emerged, lobbying Democrats she had raised money to elect. She wanted the national monument, not Simpson’s bill, a former Democratic Senate aide said. But she couldn’t stop it. The “hotlining” began, and last Friday Sen. Ted Cruz placed a hold on the bill, Greenwire reported. Several congressional sources said Risch and Utah Sen. Mike Lee convinced Cruz to drop his hold. Risch would not confirm that. “I will confirm I talked to almost everybody who placed holds on it,” Risch said.

Risch has said repeatedly that Simpson deserves the credit for the bill. But in its final hours Tuesday, it was Risch who broke the logjam. So it was ironic that in 2018, he was ready to blow up the federal spending bill to keep Andrus' name off the 90,000-acre White Clouds Wilderness,

Andrus and Risch had fought for years when he was governor and Risch Senate President ProTem. Andrus had ridiculed him viciously. And even though the other two wilderness areas were named for former Republican Sen. James McClure and writer Ernest Hemingway, Risch did not want to honor his former foil. This time he lost.

“It is only fitting that this iconic land in Idaho is forever tied to the man who dedicated his public service to protecting it,” Simpson said.

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