Since the November election, a lot of environmentalists have been publicly wringing their hands, despondent about the new political landscape. In fact, ever since the Obama administration appointed Ken Salazar, a Colorado rancher, as Secretary of the Interior, there has been widespread disappointment that nothing has changed. Now, with the new Congress, environmentalists fear things are about to get a lot worse.
Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League (ICL), one of Idaho’s oldest environmental organizations and, some would say, its most successful, does not share this pessimistic outlook. He notes that Idaho politics have always been extremely challenging for advocacy groups like ICL. “So I’m not that flipped out by this,” he said. “We just need to keep our heads down, keep doing what we’re doing and stay the course.”
Johnson says ICL tends to take a longterm view, rather than focusing on the more immediate ups and downs. “We want to focus on real solutions that can stand the test of time, solutions that reflect, or at least don’t do violence to, values held in the communities that are affected by what we do.”
The ICL, founded in 1973, can point to an impressive track record of this steady-as-you-go approach. It includes preservation of the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in the ‘70s, the Idaho Clean Lakes and Water Quality Act in the ‘80s, a revised Idaho Forest Practices Act in the ‘90s and, more recently, helping pass the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness Bill, the first wilderness designation in Idaho in 29 years.
Currently, ICL is in the forefront of the controversial effort to establish the Boulder White Clouds Wilderness in Idaho, or CIEDRA, (Central Idaho Environmental Development and Recreation Act) sponsored and championed by Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson (R). The current bill, under development for more than 20 years — which includes voluntary retirement of grazing allotments, grants for local community development, preservation of some off-road vehicle routes, and small land conveyances for local parks and other public works — reflects not only the constituent-building patience of Rick Johnson and the ICL, but their collaborative approach to conservation issues as well.
Some environmentalists view CIEDRA as a selling-out of land that belongs to all Americans. These include Carole King, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who has for years pushed for a compromise-free wilderness bill involving millions of acres in five Western states, including Idaho. Equally opposed to CIEDRA, but for other reasons, are anti-wilderness forces, Idaho’s Republican Gov. Butch Otter, powerful off-road vehicle lobbies and, it appears, Idaho’s newly elected U.S. Representative, Raul Labrador (R), who opposed new wilderness in his campaign. And now, even Idaho Sen. Jim Risch (R), a former governor and originally a supporter of the bill, is withholding his endorsement pending additional accommodation of off-road interests.
None of this deters Johnson, however. He sees this glass as half-full because the bill has been greatly improved over the years and has more public support. He points out that CIEDRA is a Republican bill, originally brought forward only after consultation with the key interest groups involved — wilderness advocates, the county commissioners, ranchers and motorized recreation people. Also, he notes, Simpson is now in a leadership position to better see it through as Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees budgets for the Department of Interior, U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Johnson did not always hold the view that community involvement and support are preferable, indeed essential, to building longterm solutions. Early in his career, after being an ICL staffer, he became a lead lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Seattle during the fight to protect ancient forests and the spotted owl. There he cut his teeth on aggressive litigation and bruising political confrontations that largely ignored the impact of that approach on people in the affected timber dependent communities.
When he came to the ICL as executive director in 1995, he brought along a lot of those big campaign attitudes with him. But all that changed early on when he had to confront a group of angry workers and their families from Boise Cascade who blamed ICL for pending mills closures. “While we were certainly involved in some of the forestry issues relevant to those mills, downsizing, automation, world trade and a lot of others things were actually to blame.”
But after things calmed down, Johnson did try to listen and came to understand that if he was going to get anything done in Idaho, he’d better pay more attention to how ICL policies were viewed in local communities where the political process has its roots. “It’s hard work, but that is how you accomplish things in a very conservative, even libertarian, independent state like Idaho. It’s what builds good relationships with Congressmen and, in the end, success for ICL’s cause.”
Jerry Brady appreciates this reasoned, realistic approach. Owner and publisher of the Idaho Falls Post Register and two-time Democratic candidate for Idaho governor, he recently came on the ICL Board. “I joined because I was very impressed by the overall quality of the organization,” he says. “It has a well-organized, committed board, a history of success and a concurrence of issues I care about.”
Among other accomplishments, Brady has high praise for ICL’s willingness to take on issues that don’t necessarily garner a lot of headlines or public attention, issues like water quality. “It’s so easy to let water quality deteriorate a little bit every year until there’s a fundamental change. The safety of our water is a product of what goes into it in the first place and how it is treated.”
Brady notes it was ICL that succeeded in getting rules enacted that reduced the discharge of mercury from gold mines in the state of Nevada (a 50-percent decrease in airborne emissions) that poisoned and are still poisoning Idaho lakes and streams. “This is low-profile, low-romance gratification work, but no one else outside the government is doing it.”
Claire Casey, of Challis, Idaho, on ICL’s Board for 11 years, has witnessed the evolution of the ICL under Johnson during her tenure. “It used to be ‘our way or the highway’ in the early days, but Rick changed that for the better. He’s recruited a vibrant staff and attracted a lot of young, highly educated people who eventually move on to lead other environmental causes such as Idaho Smart Growth.”
“I’ve learned that values are a much greater unifying force than problems,” Johnson says. “When most people think of Idaho, they think of the outdoors, and how special Idaho is in that respect, rafting on the Middle Fork, trout fishing, hiking, hunting, watching a sunrise over the desert, things like that. I want us to build positive momentum behind that inspiring vision.
Johnson thinks conservationists in Idaho need to be a “tad more humble” about their idealistic positions. “I don’t want to be right; I want to get things done for the better. I think we’re irresponsible if we can’t point to real agreements on the ground, agreements that can be supported by the majority of people in Idaho.”
Dennis Higman is a freelance journalist and writer. He and his artist wife, Lee, own a small horse ranch in the mountains near Mackay, Idaho.