An Interview with Rick Johnson
Rick Johnson is the executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2010.
Bruce Reichert: What does wilderness say about Idaho?
BR: In the 1960's Americans decided to designate certain areas as Wilderness. How much has changed since then?
I think we're really in the same place as we were in the 1960's, when the Wilderness Act was first created, because that went back to the early underpinnings of the conservation movement with Teddy Roosevelt and the turn of the century, where there was just a recognition that we had to protect special places, and that we could not leave it at the hands or discretion of the managing agencies. The reason the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 was really a recognition that we needed to take that to the highest level of our government, the US Congress, signed by the President, and remove it from the discretion of the agencies.
BR: So is Wilderness a back-handed slap against agencies then?
BR: Can one make an economic argument for wilderness?
BR: Does America need more wilderness?
BR: How do you convince folks that a Wilderness designation, with no or little management, is the best thing for the land?
If you are looking for timber production, you need to manage the forest in that case, too, but if you are trying to protect natural processes, I think that nature probably has a pretty good sense of how to do it. And there is a good chance that we will probably learn something more by observing the myriad of places that have been protected as wilderness than by thinking that we need to manage each piece. History is replete with examples of where our management ideas weren't exactly on the mark.
I think the challenge with management oftentimes is that we have to put our personal lives in the sense of scale that we have as adults in the modern world and put it into a natural scale. The rapids that we love on the Middle Fork were created, by and large, by landslides that resulted from fires; and they look raw and disturbing when you see them at the first moment, but those gravels created the spawning beds that led to the salmon. Those gravels created the beaches that we love.
It's a process, and what wilderness does is protect the earth's process over the long haul, and I think one of the challenges that we have as people is we need to put that sense of time and scale in the proper place.
BR: What was the process that led to success with the Owyhee wilderness bill?
And I would need to commend people like Fred Grant, who really posed the challenge, can we talk? Can we get past the divisiveness of the past and actually try to sit down and talk through a collective vision of what we want to see down in the Owyhee country for the future?
And I think one of the great moments was when certain ranchers realized that wilderness in the way the Wilderness Act is written, it will keep it the way it is. Owyhee County is right up against Ada County; its right up against Boise. They have an influx of folks every weekend that go out there, and they get lost and all the other challenges that they have for the county, but underneath it all, whether you are a rancher or a logger or a hunter, fisherman, a bike rider, whatever you are, there is a certain sense of what the landscape is that we want to keep it more or less the way it is.
BR: How did sitting down and talking translate into something that actually got through Congress?
I think one of the things that was really a key moment is when the ranchers figured out that we actually cared about many of the same things, and that unfettered cross country travel from motorized recreation was really something that we were both concerned with. It doesn't mean there's not a place for it, and in the Owyhees we actually protected a lot of important access for motorized recreation, but it is a balanced packaged.
But I think what the process did do was break apart those traditional adversarial roles; and one of the more powerful moments of the Owyhee Initiative is when the group got used to being with each other, put together a set of ideas, then flew to Washington DC. And when you have somebody from the conservation community walking in the room with a guy in the big hat and the big buckle, folks in the traditional political boxes don't know what to make of that. The challenge is to create the political inevitability that you are creating change.
One of the things about wilderness preservation is if we're going to succeed, we have to build bridges, and to build bridges you have to sit across the kitchen table, have a cup of coffee, have hundreds of cups of coffee and get to know people in a different way. And it's not just, hey, what do you do, what is your job, are you a logger, are you a rancher, but what do you love about Idaho? And maybe together we can build some new bridges that surprise the people in Washington D.C., and do something different.
The need is to have it be a bottom-up process, the need for it to involve a diversity of stake holders. I think wilderness, because it requires that we pass a bill in Congress, requires that we have majority support, we have support from the home state delegation, we have support from county commissioners. You reach that point where you create a political inevitability that people want to protect the wild lands they love.
BR: What makes the Owyhee area so special that it was worth 8 years and this kind of effort?
BR: What will be the lasting legacy from the passage of this legislation?
BR: How difficult is it to bring all the disparate interests to the table and find common ground for compromise?
BR: Are you still optimistic about the White Clouds this year?
That said, I'm confident that what we're doing is the right thing, by bringing people together instead of dividing them. So in the end, yes, I'm optimistic about both the Boulder-White Clouds, but the future of wilderness for the state of Idaho, because it is an extraordinary statement of optimism about the future of the place we call home.
BR: What does the Boulder-White Cloud proposal say about our views of wilderness today?
Congressman Mike Simpson really looked at the history of the area and said, who are the different interest groups that can stop this, and there is something very significant for each one of those interests. Now, one of those interests at the last minute in this case is trying to stop it, but in the end we'll get something done.
One of the great challenges of building bridges in Idaho is it takes a long time, and it is built on trust, it is build on relationships, and it is built on a sort of little suspension of disbelief. It is also a statement of optimism. I know because of my work that it is easy at the last minute to show up and blow the thing up, and that is what somebody is trying to do now. One particular interest is trying to do that.
This is not to say they don't have a point. There is no question that motorized recreation has a place on the landscape and in the Boulder-White Clouds bill there is unprecedented access protection built into the law. There are trails that are going to be protected that I wanted to see closed but that Congress is going to protect for all time. But for some people that is just not good enough. They want everything.
BR: What are your thoughts on filming in the Wilderness?
The way you manage wilderness in Maine might be a little different than how you do it in Idaho, and I think it is important that we make wilderness, the interpretation of wilderness, follow the law but also follow the custom and culture of where we live.
I think with wilderness it is important that people have the ability to see it and respect it and understand it and appreciate it; and I think that's where the filming issue comes in, whether it is people floating a river or filming with a camera, they should be able to have access.
BR: Many folks think that the state, not the federal government, should be managing these lands.
One of the greatest challenges with Wilderness is simply where the jurisdiction comes from. Idaho is a very independent place, and we don't really like the federal government telling us what to do, and it is a federal designation, so I think one of the biggest challenges is that.
BR: Do you see a way to separate the motorized constituency from the mountain bikers because right now both groups are restricted from Wilderness areas?
What was once a generation of people who would go for the contemplation are now going for the adrenaline, and that's okay. I get my thrills, too, but it is all in its place. I fully support the protection of access for mountain biking and motorized recreation, but it is all in its place.
BR: Do you ever see a "Wilderness Lite" designation for some areas?
BR: Give us a sense of what other areas in the state might be considered for Wilderness.