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.

Rick Johnson

Bruce Reichert: What does wilderness say about Idaho?
Rick Johnson: I think that wilderness really is an extraordinary statement about what Idaho is. We at the Idaho Conservation League talk about protecting wild Idaho and the core of wilderness that really defines our state. It's something that makes us different than all the other states – even Alaska, for that matter. We're different than that because it's temperate, people can get to it, and they can access it. So I think if you are going to define what Idaho means, it means wilderness.

BR: In the 1960's Americans decided to designate certain areas as Wilderness. How much has changed since then?
RJ: You don't make wilderness; you just designate it, and the designation happens through the US Congress. It is the only way it can happen, so it is a unique challenge. It is hard to do. It's hard to pass anything in the US Congress, let alone something that can be controversial on the home turf.

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?
RJ: No, not at all. I think what wilderness does is provide clarity and purpose for the agencies. One of the great challenges for the Forest Service or BLM is they have so many competing needs and desires from the public; and what wilderness does is provide the agency a clarity of purpose, a singular set of values that they are then empowered to protect. So I don't think it's a criticism of the agency; it provides clarity of purpose for the agency.

BR: Can one make an economic argument for wilderness?
RJ: Wilderness is an incredible statement of optimism. It is a statement that we have something truly special that we want to pass unencumbered and in the condition we found it for future generations. I think all of us today are concerned about the future – whether the air will be clean to breathe, whether the water will be safe to drink, whether our climate will sustain life. Wilderness is a truly optimistic statement that we're going to pass on this planet for the future and pass on some of the recreation and outdoor experiences that I believe, for Idahoans, defines our way of life.

BR: Does America need more wilderness?
RJ: The question of how much more wilderness really should be posed from the other side. It's how much less do we need in the future? And I think there's a full on debate about that. There are certain folks who think every acre of public land should be open to motorized vehicles. I think that there is a balance that needs to be created, where we have special places that man is a visitor, and nature in all its magical process is allowed to flourish.

BR: How do you convince folks that a Wilderness designation, with no or little management, is the best thing for the land?
RJ: We as a human species have a certain – I have to call it arrogance -- that we think we can manage nature better than nature can manage itself. There are places where that might be true, like the wildland-urban interface where we have people right up against the wild country, and you need to manage the forest in that case.

A meeting with the Owyhee stakeholdersIf 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?
RJ: You learn best from success, and the Owyhee Initiative was one of those examples; and what that did was bring together some great leadership on the ground on the part of ranchers and county folks and native peoples and the conservation community; and we just sat at a table for a really long time.

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?
RJ: The Owyhee Initiative really brought people together, and it calmed folks down. You could actually sit and realize that, whether it's the Idaho Conservation League or the Wilderness Society, we have a lot in common with the Owyhee Cattlemen's Association. We actually care about what a sunset over the sagebrush steppe looks like. We really care that the sound of the meadowlark is not completely overcome on a weekend by the sound of ATVs all over the place. We just reached a certain measure of common ground.

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.

Merriam and Castle Peaks reflect in Little Boulder Creek, White Clouds Mts., Sawtooth National Recreation Area, IdahoBR: What makes the Owyhee area so special that it was worth 8 years and this kind of effort?
RJ: The Owyhees certainly is special because of the extraordinary canyon system and the rolling sagebrush steppe. I would also say that through this process, we also learned that it is special because of the unique people who live there, and because of the way that people are making their living on the ground, and how they have for so long. But there are many parts of Idaho that are special.

BR: What will be the lasting legacy from the passage of this legislation?
RJ: I've been working to protect wilderness for a long time – over 25 years in Idaho – and it finally worked. The lasting legacy is to prove that it is possible, because Idaho politics is kind of challenging, and bridging the challenge of Idaho politics with Washington D.C., which is in itself pretty challenging. So the Owyhees above all else proved that it is possible.

BR: How difficult is it to bring all the disparate interests to the table and find common ground for compromise?
RJ: It requires leadership, and in the Boulder White Clouds the leadership from Representative Mike Simpson was critical in really bridging some gaps that had never been bridged before. Similarly, in the Owyhees, Senator Mike Crapo took a package that was created around a table and brought it back to D.C., and helped bridge the gap between Idaho and Washington. It requires leadership. It also requires follow-through; so I think we're at a challenging part now where we need to see the delegation follow through on the promise of collaboration.

BR: Are you still optimistic about the White Clouds this year?
RJ: It is certainly dicier. The Boulder-White Clouds unquestionably has had an unprecedented measure of support. It is supported by every editorial writer in the state. It was introduced by every member of the congressional delegation. That has never happened in Idaho history. It was well poised. It is supported by the Democratic majority, but at the last minute someone threw a wrench in the spokes, and it is still much easier to tear something down than to build something from the ground up.

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?
RJ: I think the main thing that is important, both with the Boulder-White Clouds and the Owyhees bill is that it balances a number of different issues within the actual text of the act. Earlier wilderness bills just designate wilderness and call it good. The Idaho bills bring different interests together. For instance, in the Boulder-White Clouds there is a provision to deal with ranching. There's a provision to protect motorized access, and there is a provision to deal with economic development in Custer County. So it is a package.

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.

The East Fork of the Owyhee RiverBR: What are your thoughts on filming in the Wilderness?
RJ: They (the Forest Service) are in a tough place. They are just trying to manage everybody's interests at once, but it also opens the door to partnerships and how important it is to work together. When we heard that Public TV was being precluded access to the wilderness, we right away called the Governor, we right away called the congressional delegation, and within that day the Chief of the Forest Service was being talked to by a member of the delegation. So I think it is important for us to work together.

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.
RJ: One of the challenges of land management is that different agencies and different governments have different purposes and goals. For the State of Idaho, their public lands are managed for financial gain – the school system; and wilderness is a higher purpose. It is managed for the perpetuation of the values that you find in the wilderness, and that is tough, and I think whether it is a national park or wilderness or other designations, it is important for those higher purposes to be recognized. And it is a uniquely American idea. It is something that other countries have oftentimes too late discovered they would like to bring, but we still have the ability to protect land as Lewis and Clark first saw it.

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?
RJ: There's a place for all these different uses, but what a bicycle could do fifteen years ago compared to what a bicycle can do today, or you compare what a snowmobile can do today versus what twenty years ago a snowmobile could do – I think we just have to recognize that we're a technologically advanced society, and we're going to make toys and tools that can do anything; and wilderness is just the recognition that some places should actually be just for people, on their feet.

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?
RJ: There is merit to something that is not as rigid as wilderness, but there is also merit to protecting the places that deserve to be protected as wilderness. Wilderness is the gold standard that our government can provide a landscape; and to suggest that Idaho does not have a lot of places that merit the best protection we can afford... Idaho is extraordinary. It is unlike anywhere else and we have places that deserve the gold standard.

BR: Give us a sense of what other areas in the state might be considered for Wilderness.
RJ: As I travel the great state of Idaho with Long Canyon up in the panhandle, or places in the Palisades near greater Yellowstone, or parts of the Payette national forest -- the Secesh or the Needles, or and the Boulder-White Clouds, and the Pioneer Mountains of central Idaho. There are a lot of places that are deserving of protection in the future.