WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation allowing about 20 private property owners to hold onto their water rights within Idaho's wilderness areas.
The bill -- although a relatively non-controversial measure originally sponsored by Republican Rep. Mike Simpson -- had a tumultuous history in the highly polarized House. Simpson's bill had no opposition, so it was put on a part of the House calendar when normal rules are suspended to allow for expedited approval of noncontroversial bills. Such bills require a two-thirds majority to pass.
But Simpson's bill came to the floor immediately after another bill on the suspension calendar that proved to be unexpectedly controversial: to establish the Castle Nugent National Historic Site on a beach in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
That bill, backed by Democrats and sponsored by the delegate from the Virgin Islands, Donna Christensen, had already faced GOP opposition when it came before the House Natural Resources Committee. Republicans had concerns about the cost of the property and singled it out as an example of out-of-control government spending.
So four Democrats and all Republicans -- including Simpson -- voted against the Virgin Islands bill. The 241-173 vote in favor wasn't enough for a two-thirds majority.
Democrats retaliated, picking Simpson's bill as their target, and defeating it – the bill had a majority of votes but not enough for two-thirds passage. To get it passed, House Democratic leaders told Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, that it would have to be switched from Simpson's name to Minnick's.
The House Rules Committee agreed Tuesday to allow the Idaho bill to move forward to a floor vote on Wednesday without any trouble. It required only a simple majority for passage the second go-round.
The bill allows private property owners to continue diverting water from waterways in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Privately owned ranches, river camps and hunting lodges may get permission from the U.S. Forest Service to maintain irrigation lines and a few small hydroelectric dams on their parcels within the wilderness areas. The so-called "in-holdings" are on remote, isolated parcels that existed before the land was designated as wilderness in 1980.