Idaho, the new frontier of the wilderness debate |

Idaho, the new frontier of the wilderness debate

Ray Ring

BOISE, IDAHO – On a hot October afternoon, in the nation’s most Republican state, Rick Johnson looks pleased but a little weary. He’s on his feet behind his wraparound desk, fielding a burst of phone calls and e-mails commenting on his leadership of Idaho’s biggest environmental group, the Idaho Conservation League.The issue of the day is wilderness, the purest goal of the environmental movement. Six years ago, Johnson hatched a new strategy for wilderness protection in Idaho. And today it has emerged as a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, sponsored by a conservative Idaho Republican.The calls come from journalists and old friends, many of them congratulatory. The e-mails tend to come from angry critics within the environmental movement, who think Johnson is selling them out by making too many concessions. “It’s very discouraging,” one veteran Idaho environmentalist says later. “There is this chasm [between disagreeing environmentalists] that was never here before. I fear there will be lingering damage.”There is no denying that this wilderness bill is one of a modern species, a Frankenstein creature made of stitched-together pieces that can’t live on their own. To critics, it’s ugly with compromises, giving too much to ranchers, local governments, dirt-bikers and snowmobilers.Johnson sees some ugliness in it, too, but he also sees hope: It attempts to protect nearly 300,000 acres of icy peaks, lakes, forests and sagebrush valleys in the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges. Explaining his willingness to compromise to get such results, Johnson says simply, “I’m a political person.”He’s wearing jeans and a plain short-sleeve shirt, no politician’s outfit. On the walls around him he has tokens from which he draws strength, including an Idaho flag, wildlife pictures, and printouts of quotes from wise men, such as the Greek philosopher Epictetus: “It’s not so much what you do, it’s how you do it.”With such thinking, Johnson is leading his group toward the difficult middle ground. He’s working with Rep. Mike Simpson, a jack Mormon with a passion for Corvette sports cars and flashy neckties, and a near-zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters.The story of how these two leaders came to cooperate on a wilderness bill provides a window into not only Idaho politics, but also the wider politics of the environmental movement.With the whole nation bitterly divided and bound for four more years of hard-line Republican rule, this seems like an improbable time to make headway on any progressive environmental or social initiative. Yet if Johnson and Simpson succeed in staking out middle ground in ultra-Republican Idaho, perhaps it can be found anywhere.”I’m trying to create a politics where we get past the default positions,” Johnson says. “If all I am doing is fighting things, it means more fighting.”Republicans have largely dominated Idaho since the 1940s, and since the early 1990s, their domination has become almost total. In the wake of the Nov. 2 elections, Republicans will hold fully 80 percent of the Idaho Legislature, the highest percentage of any state, as well as the governor’s office and the entire congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.With their supermajority, the Republicans in Idaho’s Legislature have concentrated on protecting business interests. Huge factory dairies have become the top farm sector here, for instance, and the Legislature has shielded them from citizen complaints about pollution and degradation of neighboring property. Meanwhile, the congressional delegation’s senior member, Sen. Larry Craig, is a champion of the archaic 1872 Mining Law and of salmon-killing dams that benefit power companies and farmers. Environmental issues play a role in Idaho’s distaste for Democrats. The Democratic Clinton administration asserted federal power during the 1990s, reintroducing wolves, toughening regulations on grazing and mining, and attempting to preserve millions of acres of roadless forest by executive action. Clinton became the bogeyman to many people here, and they reacted by leaning further to the right.On the wilderness issue, Idaho looks hopelessly paralyzed. But Rick Johnson hasn’t accepted that view.Johnson grew up in Republican upstate New York, earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science, and moved west in 1979 to the Sun Valley area, where he drove a forklift in a lumberyard, then ran his own construction company. He got into hiking, saw firsthand the impacts of mining, and started environmental work in 1984, first as a volunteer, then as a staffer for the Idaho Conservation League.After eight years with the Sierra Club, during which he lobbied Congress on logging, spotted owls and other issues, Johnson returned to Idaho in 1995 to run the Idaho Conservation League.At that time, the League was caught in the anti-Clinton backlash. Johnson began repositioning the ICL, seeking to improve its credibility, and to broaden its issues and base of support. He paid more attention to public relations, making presentations to Rotary clubs, Kiwanis and chambers of commerce, manning booths at county fairs, and advertising on public radio. “First, we have to have a dialogue with the public – we have to talk to people who don’t think like us,” Johnson says. “The underlying values of wilderness, and clean air and water, and habitat, are shared by everybody in this state. But we’ve allowed the legislative process to become dysfunctional.”Johnson believes that many Idahoans across the political spectrum are ready to cooperate on environmental issues, because they have no choice. They face crises they can’t ignore.With Idaho wrenched by the fifth-fastest population growth in the nation, Boise and its suburbs suffer increasing air pollution, highway gridlock, and sprawl. These ills erode the quality of life that attracts people and businesses here, so cities have begun to seek state funding for mass transportation, and the authority to impose local taxes for auto-emission testing. To get that, they need the cooperation of rural legislators.In return, rural interests need the urban legislators to act on Idaho’s worsening water crisis, caused by drought and chronic overallocation of water rights. They want millions of dollars in state money to buy out farmers’ water where there’s no longer enough for all the irrigators, Indian tribes and salmon.Recent polls by Jim Weatherby, chairman of the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Boise State University, reveal Idahoans’ underlying values. One found that more want wolves in the backcountry than not (about 42 percent to 40 percent), 54 percent want action on air pollution, and 55 percent support restoration of salmon runs.On political orientation, those answering “liberal” hardly register, 42 percent answer “conservative,” and another 42 percent say “middle of the road.” The conservatives and middle-of-the-roaders are “people who generally take the position that government is wasteful, taxes are bad, agencies interfere in people’s lives,” says Rick Foster, chairman of the political science department at Idaho State University. “Those people also tend to be pillars-of-the-community type of folks. They’re not so ideological, so you can reason with them.”Johnson has tapped into those currents. Taking over an ICL fund-raising campaign that was sputtering out, he’s built a $1 million endowment. He raised additional money to buy an old mansion in Boise, two blocks from the state Capitol, where he installed ICL’s high-profile headquarters. Under his leadership, the group has grown from about 2,300 members to 3,200, and from nine staffers to 14; the annual budget has more than doubled, to about $1 million.The Idaho Conservation League has reached out to Republican leaders, most noticeably in Boise, where the group worked on a Republican mayor’s 2001 initiative to impose a local tax to buy $10 million of open space in the foothills. The initiative won 59.6 percent of the vote. So far, it’s protected more than 3,000 acres of popular recreation areas within the city’s viewshed, providing residents with a tangible reminder of the conservation league’s work. It’s also good for Boise’s economy.Johnson isn’t soft on all the issues: His group has sued to reduce pollution from factory dairies and a pulp mill’s toxic waste, and against logging sales. But he frames the issues in terms of neighbors’ property rights and the public’s right to clean water. He circulates press releases that talk about “improving” timber sales, not stopping them. “We’ve let ourselves, the conservation movement, be portrayed as the problem,” he says. “We need to be seen as the problem-solvers.”High Country News ( covers the West’s communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colo.