Two enduring symbols of the American West are the American Cowboy, majestically astride his steed while rounding up the dogies, and the Bald Eagle, soaring over pristine wilderness untouched by human presence. Add logging, mining, hunting and fishing, and then stir in the activities of the “new” West such as 4-wheeling, snowmobiling, motorcycling, mountain biking, hiking, cross-country skiing, tourism and other forms of outdoor recreation, and you have the ingredients for a titanic clash of iconic outdoor activities and the impetus for the perfect storm of a “wicked” or intractable dispute over public lands use in areas such as the Boulder and White Cloud mountains of central Idaho.

Such disputes are often set apart from other policy disputes by their complexity, relentlessness and interdependency, touching on core concepts such as identity, values and beliefs. When such a dispute erupts, the full panoply of rhetorical mechanisms comes into play, to resist, obstruct, frame, conceptualize and expand or contract the issue, and to demonize, trivialize or marginalize other disputants.

Shortly after his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998, Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson (“Simpson”) began the CIEDRA (“Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act”) collaborative process for the Boulder-White Clouds area after meeting with a group of ranchers and members of the Idaho Conservation League and Sawtooth Society. At that time, Simpson undertook collaborative efforts with the ultimate goal of clarifying and solidifying current public uses of the area and removing the uncertainty of future uses. He stated in 2010 that ranchers “were under the constant threat of losing their livelihoods because of lawsuits filed against them. I agreed to bring together county commissioners, recreationists and conservationists to find long-term stability for all interested parties in the face of serious land management conflicts in this area.”

CIEDRA was introduced in every congressional session between 2004 and 2013. Before August 7, 2015, when President Obama signed the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act (CIEDRA’s ultimate successor legislation), Simpson’s collaborative efforts relating to CIEDRA had been for naught, as it was never enacted into law despite those efforts.


The Boulder-White Clouds area is located in the upper Salmon River country in Central Idaho. It is north of Sun Valley and Ketchum, east of the Sawtooth Valley, south of the Salmon River and west of Mackay, covering over 500,000 acres. Four major rivers (the East Fork of the Salmon River, the Big Wood River, the Big Lost River and tributaries of the main Salmon) originate in the area and more than 100 lakes and 150 peaks higher than 10,000 feet are located there. The area is home to an abundance of wildlife including the grey wolf, wolverine, Canada lynx, chinook salmon, steelhead trout, bull trout, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, antelope, cougars, black bears, moose, elk and mule deer, and is comprised of three different ecosystems.

Boulder White Cloud Wilderness

Map of Idaho’s newest wilderness areas. Full .pdf available from Rep. Mike Simpson.

With such characteristics, the Boulder-White Clouds are one of Idaho’s premier outdoor recreation venues and are prized by outdoor enthusiasts, including wilderness proponents, motorcyclists, mountain bikers, ATV riders, snowmobilers, skiers, snowshoers, hikers, backpackers, horsemen and fishermen. Additionally, within the Boulder-White Clouds area lay the grazing ground for numerous cattle operations, some going as far back as six generations. These are among the 66 licensed activities in the area.

Parts of these lands have been previously considered for either monument or protected wilderness status. In 1972, as part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Act, which created the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Congress designated approximately half of the Boulder-White Clouds area a Wilderness Study Area. This designation placed restrictions on the land use, preventing some prior uses from continuing.

Wilderness in Idaho, however, has been a very controversial subject, with a split between those who believe there is already enough wilderness and those who believe more is needed. An Idaho Conservation League poll in 2005 found that about 59 percent of Idahoans supported wilderness in the BWC. A 2007 Idaho Recreation Council poll in Custer and Lemhi counties found 83 percent local opposition to the wilderness. A similar 2010 poll from the IRC found 70 percent local opposition. Prior to August 7, 2015, Idaho had approximately 4,521,206 acres designated as wilderness by seven separate legislative acts. The most recent, in 2009, commonly referred to as the Owyhee Initiative, set aside approximately 517,226 acres in Southwest Idaho in six separate wilderness areas. CIEDRA would have added an approximate 332,928 additional acres to wilderness (White Clouds Wilderness – 90,888 acres; Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness – 110,370 acres; Jerry Peak Wilderness – 131,670 acres) while releasing approximately 131,670 acres from  wilderness study areas (Jerry Peak Wilderness Study Area, Jerry Peak West Wilderness Study Area, Corral-Horse Basin Wilderness Study Area, Boulder Creek Wilderness Study Area).


“When science is used in support of policy-making, it cannot be separated from issues of values and equity. In such a context, the role of specialists diminishes, because nobody can be an expert in all the aspects of complicated environmental, social, ethical, and economic issues.” – Ludwig, Mangel & Haddad

Based upon the incongruity of Simpson’s collaborative efforts and the failure to pass CIEDRA, in early 2014 I interviewed 16 individuals who had personally participated in Simpson’s collaborative efforts to determine what prevented successful collaboration and the ultimate passage of CIEDRA. It is noted that after this time frame (and failure of CIEDRA to pass), there was a broad-based push for designation of the area as a national monument by President Barack Obama under his authority pursuant to the Antiquities Act (16 USC §§ 431–433). The subsequent indication by the Obama administration that it would consider the area for monument status renewed the legislative push by Simpson, which ultimately ended with the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act (CIEDRA’s successor bill) being signed into law by President Obama on August 7, 2015.

Public lands use disputes are often noted for their “intractable” or “wicked” nature. Wicked problems come about when social problems are so complex that people disagree about problem definition and solution, and uncertainty about future environmental resources and differences in social values makes it practically impossible to define appropriate solutions (for example: Chapin, et al (2008) on wildfire in Alaska, McBeth and Shanahn (2004) on the Greater Yellowsone area and ; Shindler & Cramer (1999) on forest management in general). “As you will see, we are calling them ‘wicked’ not because these properties are themselves ethically deplorable. We use the term ‘wicked’ in a meaning akin to that of ‘malignant’ (in contrast to ‘benign’) or ‘vicious’ (like a circle) or ‘tricky) (like a leprechaun) or ‘aggressive’ (like a lion, in contrast to a docile lamb).” – Rittel and Webber, 1973 Political discourse becomes a policy marketing effort by stakeholders or policy entrepreneurs that results in lose-lose policy processes and contested policies, as McBeth & Shanahan found.


Simple discourse between parties to wicked disputes is, unfortunately, insufficient to address the issues. One way these disputes may be managed and resolved, however, is through collaborative decision making. This is a process whereby a group of people representing different sides of the dispute get together repeatedly over time and work side by side to build a common understanding of complex issues and create implementable win-win solutions through an interactive, iterative and reflexive process, all while building trust and allaying fears, anxiety and hostility, thinking comprehensively about the problem, learning mutually from other participants, gaining legitimacy of decisions, breaking gridlocks and avoiding litigation.

Reading on collaboration

Daniels, S. E., & Walker, G. B.  (2001). Working through Environmental Conflicts: the Collaborative Learning Approach  

Gregory, R., Failing, L., Harstone, M., Long, G., McDaniels, T., & Ohlson, D.  (2012). Structured Decision Making: A Practical Guide to Environmental Management Choices (1st ed.)

Simpson tasked Lindsay Slater, his chief-of-staff, with facilitating the collaborative efforts. Slater, along with Simpson’s local environmental liaison staff member, set up the process and worked together in the collaborative efforts. Four specific stakeholder groups were identified as necessary participants, including ranchers, local counties (Custer and Blaine Counties), motorized recreationists and wilderness proponents (both environmental and conservation groups). For the representatives of these four stakeholder groups Slater chose the Idaho Conservation League and The Wilderness Society (both of which were wilderness proponents and had indicated a willingness to work to pass CIEDRA), The BlueRibbon Coalition, the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and an individual who was both a rancher and Custer County Commissioner. While this group may seem small in number, it was still possible that this group of stakeholders was sufficient for effective collaboration as under Randy S. Clemons, Mark K. McBeth’s “Rule of Five.” There tends to be a small group of stakeholders that has the formal or informal power to push change through or to prevent change from happening.

This is not to say that Simpson and his staff did not reach out to many groups and individuals. Slater indicated that he had in excess of 200 meetings or communications of some sort with individuals or groups and Simpson’s local environmental staff member had approximately 100 such meetings or communications.

Unfortunately, between February 2001 and September of 2005, there were only four collaborative meetings held where representatives of at least two of the four stakeholder groups identified as necessary to the process by Slater were present. Even then, of the 11 individuals representing these four groups, only one participated in all four meetings, one participated in three, five participated in two meetings and four participated in only one meeting. Instead, the process devolved into shuttle diplomacy, which, while worthwhile in many instances, is not the same as collaborative decision making. This paucity of group collaboration meetings directly and negatively impacted the collaborative decision making process.

Additionally, of particular notice was the theme throughout many of the interviews that there was no need for the creation of a new policy in the area. Both the wilderness proponents and motorized recreationists identified the lack of a “hammer” or threat to the status quo that might provide impetus for change.

In the end, there were simply not enough meetings for the participants to work side by side to come to the common understanding of complex issues concerning the area and to create implementable win-win solutions through the interactive, iterative and reflexive process. Combine this lack of group work meetings with the lack of perceived need for change and the result was failure of CIEDRA to pass.


So what transpired between early 2014 and August of 2015 that resulted in the passage of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act? A subsequent interview with Slater indicates that the discussion of possible use of the Antiquities Act to create a national monument in the area transformed into its probable, if not almost certain use. Recognizing this, Simpson informally asked for and received from John Podesta (then-Senior Counsel for Pres. Obama) a “fluid” six months to get legislation passed before President Obama would act on the monument designation. Simpson’s office was told by the administration that the public process of holding “Monument Meetings” would be held in Idaho during the August recess or September (2015) if legislation was not successful by then. These Monument Meetings have lately been the precursor to a monument designation. Simpson rewrote CIEDRA and removed its more controversial aspects. For another view of the wilderness process in Central Idaho, see Medberry’s Art of War and Wilderness.

Under the new bill, among other things, three new wilderness areas encompassing 275,665 acres (36,968 less than under CIEDRA) would be created, four areas encompassing 155,003 acres (23,333 more than under CIEDRA) would be released from “Wilderness Study Area” to multiple use, no existing roads or trails for two-wheeled motorized use would be closed, grazing permittees would be able to voluntarily retire their grazing allotments and be eligible for compensation from third party conservation groups and local governments would be provided support by way of grants, improvements to the Trail Creek Highway and parcels of land for public purposes. Finally, over $1.5 million in grants would be made available to the SNRA for trail maintenance and improvements.

On January 15-16, 2015, Simpson and Slater met in Idaho with representatives of the four stakeholder groups (ranchers, local government, wilderness proponents, and motorized recreationists) to discuss the new bill. They met with each group individually and only one time. With the more controversial aspects removed, and with the “hammer” of a presidential designation of monument status for the area ready to come down hard, the four stakeholder groups were either in favor of or not opposed to the new bill, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act. With deft maneuvering and the help of Idaho Senator Jim Risch in shepherding the bill through the senatorial process, the bill passed in both the House and the Senate and Obama signed it into law on August 7, 2015.

Was there more collaborative decision making between early 2014 and August 7, 2015? The evidence indicates that there was not. What appears to have happened, however, was that once the more controversial aspects of the bill were removed, and perhaps more importantly, when presidential action under the Antiquities Act became a near certainty rather than just a threat, a persuasive incentive was created for the stakeholders to support the bill, or at a minimum, to not oppose it. Under this scenario, the new legislation became much more palatable to those stakeholders who had vehemently opposed it previously (and successfully derailed its passage) and it ultimately passed, protecting an additional 275,665 acres in wilderness, providing some economic value to the area and solidifying area uses by legislation.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • John Aiton

    The landscape was logged, ranches and mined for over a century prior to the SNRA in 1972. The SNRA and the Roadless Rules restricted mining, logging and residential development. The wilderness debate was simply about recreation, what toys are allowed in the park.