BOISE, Idaho — President Barack Obama on Friday signed a wilderness bill protecting 275,000 acres in central Idaho.
Obama signed the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act in the Oval Office with Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho and others behind him.
"This is a remarkable area," the president said. "It is not only beautiful, but it's also an important economic engine for the state — attracting tourism, creating jobs."
The legislation creates three new wilderness areas in the rugged Boulder and White Cloud mountains. They are the 138-square-mile Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness, the 142-square-mile White Clouds Wilderness and the 183-square-mile Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness.
Simpson had been working on wilderness designation for 15 years, trying to balance the interests of ranchers, recreationists and environmental groups. Some groups had been pushing Obama to designate a much larger area a national monument. Simpson and others have said that threat likely played a role in the wilderness bill getting through the U.S. House and Senate.
"The Boulder White Clouds area is now protected, in perpetuity, by the gold standard of preservation designations," Simpson said in a statement.
U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Julie Thomas with the Sawtooth National Forest said boundary signs for the three wilderness areas could start going up in a month, and that the agency hopes to have maps available this fall.
The Forest Service is responsible for managing all of the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness, and all of the White Clouds Wilderness except for 450 acres, which is being managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Of the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness, the majority is being managed by the Forest Service, with about 37 square miles managed by the BLM.
The agencies have three years to create a joint management plan for the wilderness areas, said Jesse Bender, a BLM spokeswoman based in Idaho Falls. She said the larger of the BLM wilderness portions was already a wilderness study area.
"The management won't change significantly," she said. "It's going to be an evolving process for us."
Both agencies said they're still absorbing information and weren't immediately able to say what initial steps were planned.
"We have a lot to learn about this," Thomas said. "We have a lot to figure out."
It's not clear whether a wilderness designation will increase or decrease the number of visitors to the area. Thomas noted the Sawtooth National Recreation Area already draws 1.5 million visitors annually.
The legislation includes an option allowing grazing permit holders on land within or adjacent to the newly created wilderness areas to voluntarily retire their permits and be eligible for compensation from outside groups.
Custer County, where officials oppose restrictions on public lands, is receiving $5 million under the legislation for a county health clinic and road improvements.
Custer and Blaine counties are also each receiving individual parcels of land for various uses.