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Orval Hansen Interview

Orval HansenOrval Hansen was Idaho's U.S. Congressman from the Second District when the Sawtooth National Recreation Area was established in 1972. He talks about the behind-the-scenes politics of getting the SNRA bill through Congress. Hansen spends part of each year in lower Stanley. He is the only living member of that 1972 Idaho Congressional delegation. Bruce Reichert conducted this interview in the summer of 2012.

When did this notion of a national park for the Sawtooths first take hold?
There was a women's club in the Magic Valley somewhere who came up with the idea, and this was a project for them, and it was the early part of the 1900's. No one really paid much attention to it, and then finally I think it was Addison T. Smith who was the first Congressman from this district who pushed a bill; and he couldn't get very far, and various members were for it and then against it.

Senator Borah was for it and then against it when the cattlemen turned against it. Nothing really happened until Frank Church was elected in 1956, and then he took it on as a project and got nowhere because there was no real sense of urgency about it. But he would try his bill, and then it wouldn't go anywhere, and then it was not until there was a visible threat to the scenic values here that other people paid attention. Those who live here were herding sheep, and they were raising cattle, and they were in timber and mining; all of these things would be affected certainly by a national park, which would involve the acquisition of the property by the government so there was no real move to take any action, until ASARCO, in looking into the White Clouds, determined that there were valuable mineral deposits there, and then began the process of gaining the rights to mine those minerals.

Then you got a lot of attention by people who were concerned about the environmental impact and some on the other side who saw this as a great economic benefit. Then people began to take an interest. But you still had a lot of opposition in this area, and a lot of those who were dealing with the government agencies were not too enthusiastic about it, and particularly about the park option, because the park involved government acquisition and the elimination of these other land uses.

But the four of us in the Congress, with Frank Church's initial support, finally got together. And we were concerned about the potential damage to the scenic values of this area, so we came together and decided that we would introduce the same legislation. Frank had tried a couple of times before and got a bill passed in the Senate because he had great stature in the Senate, and we'd go to the House committee, and it would die there.

And so he concluded that he had to get the two Congressmen on board and also to get Senator Len Jordan on board. Len was never an advocate of the park option, but he would support another concept which was fairly new in government land management, called a Recreation Area, and it anticipated the preservation of the land in its use.

The grazing and other uses that were compatible with its number one priority — which would be recreation — if it was compatible with recreation, then the land could be owned by the individual landowner. Len said he would support that, and so he went on the bill with Frank Church to create a national recreation area.

But then the other problem was, you had to get it through the House. And I introduced a bill, which turns out was the bill that the President finally signed. It was my bill introduced in the House. And of course it went to the Interior Committee that had jurisdiction; but nothing was happening there.

First District Congressman James McClure worked behind-the-scenes.What role did Jim McClure play?
You had to get Jim McClure on board, because he was a very highly respected and effective member of the Interior Committee and was highly regarded by the Chairman, Wayne Aspinall from Colorado. But Jim didn't go on my bill initially. He still had some questions about handling the mining claims, because all of this was open for mining, and there were a lot of mining claims filed all over. And so he hesitated until he could satisfy himself that they could be properly handled. He then joined on my bill.

The Senate passed their bill again; it came over and the key was getting Wayne Aspinall to schedule a hearing to say, this is a bill that we are going to move. It had to have his blessing, and I think it was Jim McClure's value to the committee that persuaded him, in a large measure, to get behind that bill and say, okay, we're going to move it.

Did the members of the Interior Committee come to Idaho?
It was the policy of the Interior Committee that they would never consider any bill of this kind — a park bill, any such a bill — until they had had field hearings; and so that meant that we had to come out and have hearings so that we could listen to the various organizations and people that would be affected by the legislation. We got the hearings out here. I think it was probably 1971. The day before we had the hearings, the Forest Service flew all the members of the sub-committee all over the area, so that they could see the great beauty of the land.

A colleague of mine, who was from Oklahoma, flew in one of these little 3-seaters with the pilot going all over to see the mountains and the lakes and so forth. And just as we were going over the tops of the Sawtooths, the chopper lost its hydraulic pressure, and so it could not maintain altitude, and so it began slowly losing altitude. My colleague was sitting in the center and the pilot had him manually operate a pump that would help. It wouldn't maintain the hydraulic pressure, but it would reduce the rate of it being depleted. So we sort of coasted over the top of those mountains and gradually went down and landed in John Breckenridge's pasture.

It landed up at the far end of the valley where Breckenridge's ranch is, and then a car picked us up and we joined the rest of them. And we thought that was quite an exciting adventure, my friend and I. The Forest Service almost had kittens because they confessed to me years later at one of our reunions that they were really concerned about that.

So it was a pretty close call as to whether this was even going to happen?
Yes, and the really hairy part comes in right toward the end, but to pick up the sequence, that same day that all of our subcommittee members arrived — and there was Roy Taylor from North Carolina who was a chairman — they took us all by chopper up to Lake Toxaway, so we could stay overnight. It was just beautiful, because you could see down in the valley, the White Clouds and the sun setting; it just lighted up the White Clouds.

They were fishing, and fortunately Roy Taylor caught some fish. Now we've always accused the Forest Service of having some guy dive down and hook the fish on, but they deny that. Roy Taylor was impressed.

Tell us about the hearings in Sun Valley.
We gathered the next day at the Opera House in Sun Valley, and we had the hearings. There was pretty substantial support, but some of them didn't want anything. The least of the evils was the Forest Service. They would rather have the Forest Service that they kind of knew and would work with, rather than the Park Service, which would involve losing all their land.

"The point that I would leave — and most people don't know — is, had we not passed that bill at that time, you would be looking wall to wall development in this valley."And among those that testified was Mary Hemingway. But it was a good hearing, and it persuaded the subcommittee to go forward. We had later hearings also in Washington, and there we were trying to deal with this question of the mining, a mining entry, and how would we handle it, and I think they finally reached a compromise; Jim McClure played a big part, because he was one of the best informed and most articulate members of that whole committee, and understood the issues. But they finally worked out an agreement that would continue the mining for five years, and then it would be extinguished until there would be no further entry after that.

Tell us about the last-minute surprises on the House floor as this bill came up for debate.
The bill was slated to come to the floor of the House for debate and final passage. And we thought everything was going very well. And then it was only just within probably the last week before the bill came to the floor, there was a movement in Idaho among some who were environmentalists, who had come together, and they had an interest in this. In fact, most of them had wanted a national park, but they would accept this, but they did not want any mining. They wanted that to be extinguished immediately. Well, Chairman Aspinall had worked hard in getting that agreement, and so he was going to send the bill to the floor as it was.

A day or two before we had the debate and the vote, you had some other groups who were speaking up, and what they were saying is this bill should be sent back to committee, so that you can change it in committee and add this language prohibiting the mining entry. It was a little disconcerting to me, but I didn't see any real major problem in the passage because it sort of came fairly late. There were some people — who I won't name — who were fairly prominent in endorsing that procedure. And also a daily newspaper that I won't name also endorsed that procedure, but it came too late.

Had the environmental movement been organized as it later was, they could have flooded Congress with telegrams, and they could have killed that bill — or sent it back to committee.

The flaw in that strategy was that Wayne Aspinall was probably the most successful chairman in the House in a long time, and he gave his personal blessing, and he gave a very powerful speech on behalf of this bill. If you had voted on the House floor to send it back to committee for the purpose of this one amendment, and then bring it back and pass it, it wouldn't happen. You don't shove a bill back at Wayne Aspinall and say, you correct this and send it back. That would be the end of it.

And before you could get the public support, the cost would have gone up, because it involved millions of dollars to buy scenic easements to get it started. There were already developments in the Sawtooth valley — honky-tonk, cheap type buildings and little settlements — and it would have gone out of control and the cost of then acquiring the easements and getting rid of that development would have been prohibitive. My point was that ours was a very narrow window.

The environmentalists had a friend in Congressman John Saylor from Pennsylvania; and Saylor, came from a fairly well-to-do family, and the family had been out into this area when he was young, so he knew it. But he also knew the legislative process, and he came to me just before the debate began and almost apologetically he said, ‘Orval, I've got to vote against that bill and I'm going to speak against it.' I was surprised; and he said, ‘my people expect me to do that,' and my people being environmental groups that he was associated with. But it didn't appear that it was going to be a big problem, but I was surprised.

Ernie Day's photo of the Sawtooth valley in the 1960s.Several of us participated in the debate, and Aspinall made a very strong speech in favor of it, as did Roy Taylor, the sub-committee chairman. And then Saylor spoke right at the end, and it was not a stem-winding speech. It was a fairly modest speech, explaining his opposition to the bill. And it wasn't until later when I reflected on what had happened and trying to understand where Saylor was coming from, I concluded and I believe now that Saylor understood the process that was unfolding' and he knew that bill had to pass, and he knew it had to pass now. He did his job. He stood up, and he opposed it and gave all the reasons for it, but, had he said, ‘I'll take the lead in trying to defeat this bill,' he would have mobilized all the environmental groups, and had them send telegrams. Most of the members of the House, they'd never heard of this until it came to the floor, so they supported it; but had there been a major lobbying effort in advance, they might have been successful. So we were just plain lucky.

So you got the bill through the House. What happened in the Senate?
You've got Frank Church and Len Jordan, each senior positions on the Interior committee; the fact that they were both for it, you don't need to ask any other questions. They passed it. And so the House bill went to the Senate, and they sent it to a conference committee, which they do when there are differences, and the conference committee met and resolved the differences very quickly. And what they did was to approve an amendment which effected an immediate withdrawal from the mineral entry. So they did what all of the environmentalist groups and the nay-sayers were trying to get done; and it came back to the House and it was going to be passed unanimously — just an approval of the conference report.

Another historic tidbit. The House had been working on an electronic voting system, so we didn't have to take a half hour to call the roll. And it was all ready to go, and our bill, the conference report, was the next item up. So this was the first time that they ever used this electronic voting system. And it passed 100%.

So it got signed into law. We'd won over the administration — they're always very skeptical about these things — but the administration, which was Nixon, became supportive. But we had to get the money to implement it, and the place you would look for is this Land and Water Conservation Fund; it is used for these kinds of projects. But there are 10 projects for every one that can be funded, and so we had to get the money there.

The bill authorized many tens of millions of dollars to get that started; and the administration released those funds, so they could begin acquiring scenic easements, which means that you sell your right to build beyond a certain level so that you can preserve in natural form all the great places of scenic beauty, and the recreation opportunities we have here.

What's the take-away from all this?
The point that I would leave — and most people don't know — is, had we not passed that bill at that time, you would be looking wall to wall development in this valley. The scenic beauty of the mountains and the lakes is something that has a market value; and we saw, particularly around Obsidian, which is where it was getting started, but you would have had it all up and down this valley. And when you finally realize that we made a mistake, and we've got to go back and do it over, the cost of acquiring the easements on those lands would be absolutely prohibitive.

So I think maybe one can say the good Lord was with us on this one, and we can be so grateful that, as a result of that good luck and some real statesmanship by a lot of people, we have preserved and will for all time one of the greatest scenic treasures on the earth.

I have heard that some folks want to rename Mount Heyburn in honor of James McClure. Have you heard that?
I haven't heard that. I'm one to believe and I've said that Jim McClure was the key to this. Now, Frank had done the initial work to look at the options and to build public support. But in the critical moment when we had to enlist the chairman, Wayne Aspinall, to get behind it and to schedule hearings, it was Jim McClure.

He was as gifted a legislative technician as I have ever seen. We were together in the state Legislature and I saw it there and then in the Congress. When we'd have hearings, he knew what to ask, and he knew how to frame the language that would carry out the committee's purpose. When he finally joined as a co-sponsor of my bill, when he finally did that and told the chairman we'd like to have hearings and move this forward, that was what did it.

You can name anything you want for him.