“I’m a conservationist, and I acted on my belief that Idaho and Alaska offer the last, best chance to keep a chunk of the natural world intact. America’s frontiers aren’t always for the taming.” -Cecil D. Andrus [1]

Dawn is breaking on December 19, 2005, and I’m careening along a desolate strip of snow-swept highway on Southern Idaho’s Camas Prairie. The first hint of impending day has cracked the eastern horizon in the rear-view mirror as my headlights chase the ebbing night.

After passing through the farm town of Fairfield the towering ramparts of the Soldier Mountains become visible in the waxing pink of sunrise to the north. Thin blades of grass protrude from freshly fallen snow.

I consider how unique my early-morning journey to Boise must be to Western states, and to Idaho in particular. My experience isn’t vast, but I’m certain it shouldn’t be this easy for a practically unheard of reporter from a weekly newspaper to achieve an audience with a four-time Governor and former Secretary of the Interior. But Cecil Andrus was easily amenable when I talked briefly with him on the telephone two weeks ago.

“Keep in mind when you’re talking about this what Will Rogers said about the land,” Andrus had said. “They just aint making it anymore.”

Not making it anymore. Even so, the unfolding sweep of the Camas Prairie, like the preponderance of the state, seems vast and undeveloped. The prairie, named for camas roots harvested by the Bannock Indians, is largely privately owned, but it is big, wide-open country. To the untrained eye it seems there’s plenty of land to go around.

Snowy roads slow my progress, and I arrive late in the Treasure Valley, where Boise is coddled by tumbling foothills to the north and east. I find Andrus in his office at a political and financial consulting firm not far from the State Capitol where he spent most of his political career. He asks a receptionist to fetch me a cup of coffee, which she brings in a delicate-looking china cup on a saucer.

The office is tidy, Andrus’ appearance pressed, but his manicured tailoring belies his humble beginning in Idaho politics. “Cece,” as he’s known in the state, is a North Idaho timber man from Clearwater County and describes himself with typical self-deprecating humor as a “political accident.” But Andrus is Idaho’s only four-term governor, and his four years as Secretary of the Interior also make him the first Idahoan to serve in a presidential cabinet. He began his political career in 1960 when, at the age of 29, he became the youngest man ever elected to the Idaho State Senate. He was elected Governor in 1970 and was appointed to President Jimmy Carter’s cabinet in 1976. He founded and directs the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. The Andrus Center has organized major conferences on Western public lands and resource issues, and those conferences are where I first got a glimpse of the bald-headed man with whom I am now sitting eye to eye.

As the morning stretches Governor Andrus discusses the value of the wilder side of Idaho to its people and economy. He says the acreage of Congressionally designated wilderness areas and national parks more than doubled during his tenure as Secretary of the Interior. He talks about how his efforts with Senator James McClure to designate wilderness throughout Idaho—including the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains—in the mid-1980s stalled and how they’d had their “heads kicked off.” He says he supports Congressman Mike Simpson’s efforts to strike a chord of compromise in those mountains now.

Andrus is an avid angler and hunter and has a long history wheeling and dealing when it comes to public land and natural resources. The wild character of Idaho, he says, is something the state’s residents should treasure. It’s something the state can use to market itself. It’s one of the fundamental reasons why people who come to Idaho find it difficult to leave.

Wilderness “is a very important part of new industries and old industries,” he says. “We sell the image of Idaho, enjoy the great outdoors. That’s selling the wilderness concept, which creates industry. The New has overcome the Old, but there’s still room for both. That’s why it’s very important that we maintain the livestock industry, the agriculture industries, so that we have the stimulation of the economy so that people have jobs they can fill.”

Idaho is a state in a state of metamorphosis. Computer giants Micron and Hewlet Packard are headquartered in Boise. The resort communities of Sun Valley, McCall and Coer d’Alene are increasingly targeted by retiring corporate success stories from somewhere else. I know from living here, but I’ve read it in Andrus’ memoir as well:

“For example, the Idaho mining industry lost two thousand jobs between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. In the same period, however, the state gained eight thousand high-technology jobs . . . I watched from the capitol as the state grew by 15 percent in 1994, my last year as governor. During out-of-state jaunts during my first term as governor, I would be asked, ‘What’s the capital of Idaho? Des Moines?’ That mistake wasn’t being made in the 1990s. Where are these people arriving from? My daughter Tracy ran for mayor of Boise a couple of years back, and found California and New York to be the leading contributors of new Idahoans. I wasn’t surprised. Technology encourages them to come. The quality of life makes it impossible for them to leave.” [2]

A significant part of this quality of life is because Idaho is the wildest of the Lower 48.

Andrus says the wilderness bill of yesteryear may be turning into something of an antique. As successful efforts in Nevada and Oregon illustrate, the unilateral drawing of lines on maps to resolve significant wilderness disputes may no longer be a viable method of resolution to public land disputes. Congressman Simpson’s recent effort in particular is being used to legislate solutions to an array of political and social conundrums. In a sense, the legislation is being used to bridge the New West and Old West, to build consensus among people with wildly disparate points of view.

“In 1964 we were riding saddle horses, and now they’re riding snowmobiles and motorcycles,” Andrus says. “There are a whole lot of constituencies for the outdoors, and some of them leave tracks, and some of them don’t. I think the tenacity of both sides has increased over the years to where Simpson had no choice. He had to give Custer County and the boys over there something. He had to give the off-road vehicle people something. He made it possible to create a cohesive group that will make the bill passable.”

As recreational use of the mountains increases Andrus believes the wilderness characteristics of wild places will increasingly be eroded. New trails will be pioneered. Existing trails will be used by people on motorcycles and four-wheelers. Timber companies may achieve new toeholds in previously unlogged areas.

“If it isn’t resolved now I don’t think it ever will be,” he says.

In the case of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains Andrus says the time is now. He agrees that Congressman Simpson’s effort, called the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, is the last, best chance for wilderness protection for the rugged mountains that helped effect his political career.

“If it’s not resolved now it will continue to be adversely impacted by other uses that destroy the environmental qualities that contribute to a wilderness area,” he says. “The Congressman is playing his environmental card, and he’s playing it very well.”

And Andrus should know. Some thirty years ago he became the first Idaho Governor to be elected on an environmental platform, and some twenty years ago his co-authored effort to designate wilderness throughout Idaho, including the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, was thwarted before it got off the ground.

“It was Comp White Sr. who said, ‘You’ve got to go from where you’re at,’” Andrus says. “And that’s where we’re at. As things change you’ve got to change with them.”

© Greg Stahl

[1] Andrus, Cecil D. and Connelly, Joel. “Politics Western Style.” Sasquatch Books, 1998. P. 2.
[2] Id. Pp. 172-173.

* Governor Andrus granted this interview, printed here in part, to contribute to the research for a thus-far unpublished manuscript on the evolving politics of natural resources management in the West.