Rick Johnson is executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. After working for ICL in the mid-1980s, he spent eight years in Seattle, working with the Sierra Club to protect the Northwest’s ancient forests, often as a “frequent-flyer lobbyist” in Washington, D.C. He returned to Idaho in 1995.

Monday, 27 Jan 2003

BOISE, Idaho

On this rainy morning in Boise, after reading a newspaper op-ed from a motorized-recreation activist criticizing the wilderness advocacy of the Idaho Conservation League, I’m reminded that I owe the work I do to the White Clouds. The White Clouds are a spectacular mountain range in central Idaho; together with the Boulders, they form the largest unprotected chunk of pristine National Forest left in the lower 48 states.

The White Clouds.

Photo: Lee Melly.

Twenty years ago, I was an idealistic volunteer for ICL, trying to get Congress to designate the White Clouds as a wilderness area. Despite a few legislative near misses, the White Clouds remain unprotected. Still, they are a touchstone for my life in conservation. In this line of work, lessons come daily and often come hard, but I’ve been able to maintain my original idealism, in part because the White Clouds continue to inspire me.

The Idaho Conservation League turns 30 this year — 30 years of working to protect and restore the water, wildlands, and wildlife of Idaho through citizen action, public education, and professional advocacy. Over those three decades, we’ve grown from a few loose threads across Idaho to three offices, 14 staff, and a cadre of extraordinary volunteers; these threads are now deeply woven into the fabric of Idaho.

I just finished talking to Amy Haak, who’s preparing a conservation-biology assessment of the state to help guide our work. The assessment will document the science but cannot capture the magic of what lies outside. On this winter Idaho day, wolves roam the Salmon-Selway country, the largest wildland ecosystem in the lower 48 states. Herds of elk paw through the winter crust for food and shake off the falling snow. Higher up, lynx prowl for snowshoe hare, and the rugged peaks are finally getting the snow we’ll all need as run-off come summer.

Grey days for grey wolves?

Photo: USFWS.

In the lower valleys of the Salmon watershed, wild salmon and cutthroat trout hug the cobbles of waters swelling with the weekend’s rain. In the rich forests of the Clearwater, Idaho today remains as Lewis and Clark saw it two centuries ago. Yet change is afoot. We are one of the nation’s fastest growing states; many more people want to use and enjoy what was once treasured by just a few. And from the nation’s capital, an avalanche of environmental rollbacks threaten to bury real places and values under policies we will long struggle to dig out of.

Jerry Pavia, our past board president, just called about an upcoming science gathering on grizzlies in the Idaho Selkirks. Jerry’s been at this work for decades, and he reminds me of Brock Evans, a pioneering conservationist who once worked on Idaho issues and is now battling cancer. “Endless pressure, endlessly applied,” Brock says. “That’s how we win.” Some days, running a nonprofit feels like the carnival clown spinning plates on fingers and feet; on those days my work is reduced to endless meetings, endlessly attended. I don’t know if we can help Jerry get the dough he needs for the science meeting, but Brock is right, and Jerry personifies it. Stay focused. Do good work. Keep doing good work. A mantra for a Monday morning.

Idaho is tough turf for conservationists. We’ve been vilified by a few officeholders who resent a vision of Idaho as something other than a colony for extractive industries and polluters. Special interests have accused us of “rural cleansing,” a particularly reprehensible bit of word craft. A couple years back, after timber giant Boise Cascade announced the closure of a log mill, 150 angry mill workers filled our office parking lot and police were called in.

But we are breaking through. Victories do come, and losses are contained. We succeed because so many love Idaho’s outdoors. We practice conservation by complementing Idaho’s conservative values rather than trying to overthrow them. We succeed because we’ve defended Idaho’s core values while respecting those who disagree with us, challenging as that can be. We build bridges where we can and provide strong advocacy where we must.

The coming week is going to be crazy. Fundraising challenges abound, the legislature is in session two blocks away, and we’re in the midst of annual planning for our staff. I’ve got to give a speech to the Boise Rotary and attend a planning meeting with our lawyers. My board president will be here at 1:30 and at 3:00 I’m being interviewed about fundraising in a shrinking economy.

Looking out the window, the rain-covered statehouse dome draws my eyes, but the memory of the snow-covered White Clouds lifts my spirit. These soaring peaks continue to inspire. Several days ago, Rep. Mike Simpson, a conservative Idaho Republican, expressed his intention to introduce a wilderness bill for the White Clouds, Boulders, and Pioneers by mid-year. “Endless pressure, endlessly applied.” It works. My phone is ringing; emails are waiting. Monday begins.