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Environmentalists Differ On Collaborative Projects


President Obama has brought a new sense of optimism to the environmental movement. For the first time in years, conservation groups see a real chance to enact bills that received a cold reception from the Bush administration.

Some of those groups are pushing hard to get as much as they can. Others are proceeding more cautiously.

Those differing approaches have exposed a philosophical rift between idealists and pragmatists. Inland Northwest correspondent Doug Nadvornick reports on how those differences are playing out in Idaho.


This rustic lodge near the town of Stanley sits in the shadow of central Idaho's majestic Sawtooth Mountains. Members of the Idaho Conservation League are here to  celebrate a good year.

 Rick Johnson
 Rick Johnson

They're not only pleased to have a more sympathetic president, but the league's director Rick Johnson says they're also glad former Republican Senator Larry Craig is gone.

Rick Johnson: "We have a different Congressional delegation in part because we have a different senior senator."

Even though environmentalists have lost one of their biggest critics in Craig, Idaho's delegation is still mostly Republican. It includes Congressman Mike Simpson, who's also here celebrating with the Idaho Conservation League.

Mike Simpson: "I want to compliment all of you for the work that you've done and staying in there in trying to get this done. We will get it done."

What Simpson and these environmentalists want to get done is a bill that would create 300,000 acres of wilderness here in the Sawtooths. In exchange, Simpson would give thousands of acres of public land to private interests.

Rick Johnson says this is exactly the kind of compromise his group tries to seek.

Rick Johnson: "One of the things that we learned through our work is that it's very easy to make a point. It's a lot harder to make a difference. We realize that everybody has a say. You can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good and I have to say that we just grew up."

Johnson says one success story is the recent wilderness designation for a half million acres in the Owyhee Canyonlands in southern Idaho. President Obama signed it into law in April. It happened with the help of Idaho Republican Senator Mike Crapo.

That pragmatic approach is one that many Idaho Conservation League members endorse, including Gerry Faude.

Gerry Faude: "You know, we need to put our differences aside. We're all here for such a short time and we want to enjoy and have fun. And we need to do it together."

This collaborative approach may play well with this group's members, but it troubles environmentalists like Erica Rosenberg, the president of the board of Seattle's Western Lands Project.

Erica Rosenberg: "I don't have a problem with people sitting down and trying to sort things out. I think that's great. But what happens is the people get incredibly invested in reaching a deal and they sort of lose sight of the bigger picture. And sometimes the deals they strike involve waiving environmental laws."

Along those same lines, George Nickas, the director of Wilderness Watch in Missoula, Montana, says he's not interested in compromises that lead to watered-down policies.

George Nickas: "Getting a bill passed is how success is defined now, rather than whether or not what passes, or the outcome, is what is going to be best for the land or best for the wilderness."

Environmental groups like Wilderness Watch are advocating for one bill that would create a wilderness area so large that it includes land in five Western states.

Congressman Raul Grijalva: "Today we'll hear testimony on HR 980, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act of 2009."

Several panels of supporters and opponents testified at this hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee. One panelist was more famous than the rest. Stanley, Idaho resident and singer/songwriter Carole King is a prominent advocate for this wilderness bill, as we hear in this webcast.

Carole King: "You need to do this because it is the right thing for the world, the planet, your neighbors, your constituents and we can work through our problems."

In the past, King has criticized the Idaho Conservation League because it doesn't endorse the Northern Rockies wilderness bill.

The league's Rick Johnson doesn't think that bill has a chance.

Rick Johnson: "Frankly, I would love it if it passed. I'm just a pragmatic politician person. I just don't see it happening."

The test of these differing approaches will come in Congress in the next few months.

Lawmakers have had a hearing on the vast Northern Rockies wilderness bill. But Idaho's Congressional delegation appears inclined to support the more modest plan to set aside land in the Sawtooth Mountains.


Online:

More about Rep. Simpson's central Idaho wilderness bill

More about the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act