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A Celebration of Politics Working…

It would be easy – even inevitable – given the dysfunctional state of American politics to just say the heck with it – nothing works any longer and nothing much gets done. I’ve been in that funk and may well slip back soon enough, but today I take heart that politics can still work.

The Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho

The Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho

The United States Senate this week completed action on a piece of legislation to protect more than a quarter million acres of some of the most spectacular landscape on the North American continent as Wilderness – with a capital W. The action, eventually coming as the result of a unanimous consent request in the Senate, follows similar approval in the House of Representatives. President Obama’s signature will come next.

The Politics of Effort…

The legislation is largely the result of determined, persistent effort by Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson, a legislator of the old school who actually serves in Congress in order to get things accomplished and not merely to build his resume and court the fringe elements of his own party. Simpson is not the type of lawmaker that many in his party might wish him to be – one of those nameless, faceless members who vote NO, do as little as possible, get re-elected every two years and blame Washington’s shortcomings on “bureaucrats” and “Democrats.”

Rep. Mike Simpson

Rep. Mike Simpson

For the better part of fifteen years Simpson has, often single-handedly, championed greater environmental protections for the high peaks, lush meadows and gin-clear lakes of the Boulder-White Clouds area in his sprawling Congressional district in eastern Idaho. Rather than churn headlines denouncing the environmental movement, Simpson invited them to the table along with ranchers, county commissioners and a host of other interests to find a way to resolve controversies in the Idaho back country that date back decades. None of the parties trusted the others, but Simpson made them reason together with the quiet hard work that is the essence of real politics.

Blessed with a fine staff and the instincts of a patient dealmaker, Simpson worked the problem, understood the perspectives of the various interests and pushed, cajoled, humored, debated, smiled, and worked and waited and never gave up. At any number of points along the way a lesser legislator might well have lost patience, gotten discouraged or just said the hell with it, but Simpson never did, even when blindsided by members of his own party who once unceremoniously knifed his legislation after publicly indicating their support.

I wasn’t alone in concluding that the political process in Washington and the “Hell No Caucus” in Mike Simpson’s own party would never permit passage of another wilderness bill in Idaho. Over time the discouraged and disgruntled placed what little of their faith remained with President Obama. Obama, who has only gotten grief from Idaho Republicans the last seven years and owes the state nothing except maybe a thank you to a handful of Democrats who give him a 2008 caucus victory over Hillary Clinton, hinted that he would use “executive action” to declare the Boulder-White Clouds a National Monument. That potential provided the grease needed to lubricate Simpson’s legislative handiwork and the stalemate was broken.

There is an old maxim that dictates that you can keep your opponents off balance and disadvantaged in politics by displaying just enough unpredictability – even recklessness – that they think you just might be crazy enough to do what they most fear. Idaho Republicans, who had mostly not lifted a finger to help Mike Simpson over the years, came to believe that Obama just might be crazy enough to stick his proclamation pen in their faces and create a monument twice the size of the wilderness Simpson’s proposed.

Make no mistake, whatever they might say now, the determined congressman would not have received the support he ultimately did from other Idaho Republicans had they not feared – really feared – action by the president that would have created an Idaho national monument. It also didn’t hurt that Simpson and conservation-minded Idahoans in both political parties demonstrated broad public support for action on the Boulder-White Clouds.

Victory has a thousand fathers…and mothers…

While it is tempting to gloat about the late comers to the grand cause of environmental protection finally having to cave, it is more important to remember that political victory always has a thousand fathers and mothers. This is a moment to celebrate. Mike Simpson deserves – really deserves – to savor what will be a big part of his political legacy. Idaho conservationists, particularly the Idaho Conservation League and its leadership, deserve to celebrate the role that Idaho’s oldest conservation organization played in creating what some of us thought we would never see again – a wilderness bill in Idaho.

Cece Andrus in the shadow of the White Clouds

Cece Andrus in the shadow of the White Clouds – Idaho PTV photo 

There must be praise for visionaries who came before, particularly including former Governor Cecil D. Andrus who campaigned against an open pit mine in the area in 1970 and later attempted to do what has now been done. The late Idaho Senators Frank Church and Jim McClure deserve a big acknowledgement. Both knew the value of protecting the area and never flagged in their determination to see it accomplished. Countless other Idaho hikers, hunters, fishermen and outdoor recreationists played their indispensable roles as well.

Best of all, unborn generations of Americans will now have a chance to experience one the most remarkable, pristine, and beautiful areas in the entire country, if not the world. American wilderness is landscape and habitat and majesty and solitude, but it is also a state of mind. Knowing we have conserved something so special and so valuable not just for ourselves, but also for the future is truly a priceless gift.

On this one occasion and after decades of work, the good that politics can do reigns supreme. A piece of heaven right here on earth has been saved and we are all the richer for it.

The Big Burn

The Big Burn by Tim EganPositive Notices Roll in for Egan’s Latest

As I noted in this space a while back, Tim Egan’s new book – The Big Burn – is a winner both as western (especially Idaho) history and as a cautionary tale about natural resource policy.

Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a starred review and Kirkus said it is a must for any “green bookshelf.”

Egan’s work deserves a wide audience and appears to be getting one based upon accolades so far.

The Seattle Times said: “The Big Burn shows off Egan’s writerly skills and will bring attention to both how the Northwest was won — with big timber at the front — as well as the current debate over fire prevention in the wilderness.”

The Washington Times, a newspaper not likely to embrace much of what Egan writes in his New York Times column, nonetheless loved his book: “Not since David McCullough’s 1968 The Johnstown Flood grabbed readers and hurled them down the narrow Conemaugh Valley to certain doom can I remember a natural-disaster yarn that yanks one by the back of the neck face to face with horror the way Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn brings the great Western fire of 1910 over the mountain to destroy the town of Wallace, Idaho.”

The Oregonian’s review focused on the heroes of Egan’s story: “Timothy Egan loves the story of Ed Pulaski and tells it with relish, gesturing with his arms and lowering his voice to imitate Pulaski. He also loves the story of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the future president and the first chief of the Forest Service, stripping to their underwear and wrestling to seal their friendship in 1899.”

The Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker has a good piece on the book and, like me, loves the story of forester Pulaski who left his family during the worst of the great fire to march back into the woods to help his trapped firefighters.

In a long essay on the first chief of the Forest Service, Pennsylvanian Gifford Pinchot, who plays a center role in The Big Burn, the Philadelphia Inquirer said: “Central to Egan’s story are the nation’s forests themselves. And Pinchot’s efforts to conserve them.”

And, the Christian Science Monitor says: “What makes The Big Burn particularly impressive is Egan’s skill as an equal-opportunity storyteller. By this I mean that he recounts the stories of men and women completely unknown to most of us with the same fervor he uses to report the stories of historic figures.”

For Idaho history buffs, Egan’s book also resurrects one of the state’s true political characters, Senator Weldon Heyburn, who has mostly been forgotten.

The Twin Falls Times-News notes that the mean-spirited Heyburn was a “hard man to like” and that, “In his hometown of Wallace, the U.S. senator from Idaho once stopped a visiting band in mid-performance and ran it out of town because he didn’t like a tune it was playing.”

Heyburn State Park near Plummer, Idaho – the oldest park in the Northwest – is named after the Senator. After you read Tim Egan’s book, you may well conclude that renaming the park to honor Ed Pulaski would make some sense.

The Big Burn is as good a piece of northwest political, cultural and public policy history – all in the wrappings of an adventure story – as we’ve seen in a long time.

Go read it.

How the West Was Saved

ConservationConservation Visionaries

Douglas Brinkley’s fine new book – The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America – tells the great story of how Roosevelt, the New Yorker born of privilege who became a westerner by choice, came to preserve during his presidency vast amounts – 230 million acres total – of national forest land, monuments, wildlife refuges and parks.

Roosevelt’s remarkable foresight keeps on giving. More than 100 years after TR’s aggressive use of Executive Orders and the Antiquities Act marked him as the nation’s foremost conservationist, we are still debating what to do with all he set aside. Thank the 26th president for not foreclosing our options all those years ago.

When some westerners speak dismissively of the unique American legacy of public ownership of vast amounts of beautiful, rugged, economically valuable, and often largely untouched land they tend to refer to the acreage as “federal land.” But that is inaccurate. The land belongs to all of us just as TR envisioned and every generation since Roosevelt has faced the task of reconcilining its stewardship responsibilities with the unrelenting pressure – and unrelenting need – to harvest timber, extract minerals, generate energy and generally support a modern society.

The debate over that stewardship of public land has often been shrill and polarizing, but that may be changing at least a little.

In a thoughtful piece in The Atlantic Jonathan Weber, publisher of NewWest.net, an on line magazine covering the west, extolled what may be a gathering trend – attempting to resolve age old disputes about western land management using collaboration and compromise right here in the west rather than resorting to bombast and lawyers.

Weber points to the approach pioneered in Idaho by Rick Johnson, the Executive Director of the Idaho Conservation League (ICL), that has helped engineer recent new wilderness protection for the magnificant Owyhee Canyonlands in extreme southwestern Idaho and will soon, we can hope, finally see through the Congress the long sought, often delayed protection of the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in central Idaho.

Johnson – no relation, but a friend – has learned what some in the conservation community, and the national media, have yet to see: pragmatic, common sense conservation must be built from the ground up and it will always involve compromise. ICL has made common cause with two pretty conservative Idaho Republicans – Senator Mike Crapo and Congressman Mike Simpson – in the interest of moving the ball on wilderness protection, while also acknowledging the local need for economic stablity and jobs.

Montana’s new Democratic Senator John Tester is working the same trapline and I”ll be surprised if we don’t see more use of the model across the vast American west. It seems to be working.

I marvel at Teddy Roosevelt’s vision that encompassed creation of the remarkable system of national forests that provide us raw materials, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and solitude. At the same time the man who hunted every type of African game and proudly saw to it that mounted heads graced the walls of his home and many musuems was also the bird loving creator of Deer Flat and Minidoka Wildlife Refuges in Idaho.

When I spent last Christmas at the picturesque old El Tovar lodge on the south rim of the Grand Canyon – the park was saved by Roosevelt from the designs of early Arizona miners – and walked in the snow along the trial overlooking what may be the most spectacular site in the country, I couldn’t help but feel immense gratitude for the old Rough Rider’s certainty that this marvelous place must be conserved for all of us and forever.

Thankfully TR had the vision to act as he did; mostly unilaterally and often in the face of powerful opposition. But, thanks as well for a new generation of westerners, of many political stripes, who realize a different time demands a different approach.

The great writer Wallace Stegner often made the point that westerners live with many myths, including the myth that the west was built by the hands of rugged individuals acting on their own. Not true, Stegner said. The west has been built through cooperation and government action including reclamation projects created 100 years ago and 2009 stimulus spending on everything from renewable energy to road and transit projects.

The west’s story has always involved much hard give and take. The west’s true rugged individuals realize that fact and are willing to summon the courage and sustain the energy to work and worry over the compromises that continue to make the west a place of hope, opportunity and awe.

As Roosevelt once said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Good advice and not a bad slogan for the future of the American west.