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Peter T. Johnson

1p6nk2.AuSt.36In the years following his frequently tumultuous tenure as head of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Idahoan Peter T. Johnson looked back on those years; years of crisis in the Pacific Northwest dominated by an overbuilt and astoundingly expensive nuclear power program, as a great life experience. Johnson would say he learned a lot.

In January of 1993, as was his style and long after his BPA tenure had ended, Johnson committed some of the lessons to paper in an article published in the Harvard Business Review. His think piece – “How I Turned a Critical Public Into Useful Consultants” – should be required reading for any business or government executive who needs to channel public anger, confusion and misinformation in the direction of constructive change.

Johnson noted in his HBR piece that when he ran Trus Joist, the wood products company that was founded in Boise, he had little time for the consuming and often not very pleasant task of engaging critics. “I had enough on my plate without environmentalists, politicians, special interests, or the general public second-guessing my decisions and interfering with my operations,” he wrote. But at BPA, where he became administrator in 1981, Johnson had little choice but to engage the region’s often unruly stakeholders who included public and private power interests, environmentalists, labor unions, fish advocates, river operators, and tribal governments, just to name a few,

“Outsiders had a way of exerting influence whether I liked it or not,” Johnson wrote. “I had no sooner arrived at BPA when the agency became the target of political, legal, and even physical threats from people outside the organization who had lost confidence in BPA’s ability to act without jeopardizing their interests. Those of us on the inside knew we were capable of making good decisions, and we made every effort to explain our reasoning.

“But that was the problem. By first making decisions and then explaining them, we were essentially telling people that we knew what was good for them. Meanwhile, the people affected by our decisions were telling us in any way they could—lobbying to curtail BPA’s authority, taking BPA to court, or aiming rifles at BPA surveyors—that the father-knows-best approach to decision making was completely unacceptable.”

The businessman became a listener and his “come let us reason together” approach allowed him to move ahead with the enormously controversial decision to shutdown much of the appropriately dubbed “Whoops” nuclear project – the Washington Public Power Supply System. Johnson did not fully appreciate the mess he inherited when Ronald Reagan, at the behest of Idaho Sen. Jim McClure, tapped him to run the sprawling federal power marketing agency that has been a fixture in the region since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House.

A Johnson predecessor at BPA, a right-wing ideologue named Don Hodel, had championed the nuclear building program in the 1970’s. Convinced that the region was running short of power, Hodel lobbied utilities to “build, build, build,” while at the same time, as the Seattle Times reported in 1997, belittling environmentalists as “prophets of shortage” bent on “stopping all development in this country.” Ironically Hodel’s “vision” – a nuclear powered Northwest – eventually lead to the bankruptcy of much of the Whoops project, still one of the largest public bond defaults in American history. In classic Peter Principle fashion, Hodel “failed upward” and won a promotion to be Reagan’s Secretary of Energy and later Interior. Peter Johnson was left to clean up the mess.

Peter Johnson died a few days ago at age 82. The Dartmouth educated business guy had retired to McCall, Idaho where he kept close tabs on the often dysfunctional local politics and served as a leading advocate for protecting the water quality in Payette Lake, one of Idaho’s great natural wonders.

In reflecting on his career, I think Johnson must have been the kind of person FDR envisioned running the big, important regional agency dealing with energy; a subject of fundamental importance to the economy and the environment. Johnson was a Republican, but never a partisan. He was a man of his word and, as his HBR article suggests, a successful man of the private sector who displayed enough agility and intelligence that he could learn how to operate successfully in the public sector.

With the current management of BPA mired in scandal and beset by shifting leadership it would be easy to forget that the agency once faced even bigger problems and went on to survive as a vital resource in the Pacific Northwest. Peter Johnson was a major part of that survival.

I had the good fortune to know Peter Johnson a little. On more than one occasion he patiently schooled me on Valley County politics and I once had a cameo role in helping implement his ideas about how to focus public and government attention on water quality issues as a key factor in the future of the central Idaho region he loved.

We can thank the late Jim McClure and his brilliant chief of staff Jim Goller for identifying Peter Johnson as their candidate to run BPA in the early 1980’s. It was truly a case of the right guy in the right job at the right moment in history. He’ll be missed.

[Photo credit – BPA]

The Livability of Rocky Mountain Cities

Dan KemmisDan Kemmis – Sustaining the West’s Urban Economy Means A Focus on “Livability.”

I had the pleasure of introducing Dan Kemmis, the former mayor of Missoula, Montana and speaker of that state’s House of Representatives, at this week’s City Club of Boise luncheon.

The Kemmis speech and Q-A airs Saturday at 8:00 pm on KBSX (91.5) or you can catch he program on the City Club website.

Kemmis is the rare political leader who has successfully combined people and political skills with the ability to create new policy approaches – he’s a champion of civic engagement and collaboration – and then write about them with clarity and intelligence. He is now a senior fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources and the Environment.

As the Idaho Business Review noted, Kemmis made the case that the “real driver … of the new western economy has been the livability of our communities.”

Kemmis maintains that “livability is bigger, deeper and stronger as a driver than growth itself.”

He makes a pretty compelling case that cities like Salt Lake, Missoula, Boise and Denver have thrived, and will again, because they are essentially really decent places to live. (I could add a few more cities to the list – Portland, Bozeman, Coeur d’Alene, for instance.)

Think about Salt Lake’s good and getting better transit system, Missoula’s great parks and open space, Boise’s foothills and marvelous parks and greenbelt, and Denver’s revitalized downtown (and the Colorado Rockies).

As our region struggles to climb out of a deep recession, Dan Kemmis would remind us to focus on the basics of what makes cities great – intellectual infrastructue (libraries, for instance), open space, parks and outstanding recreational opportunities, ease of movement, and a culture of civic engagement.

I spent some time with a friend from the east coast recently. His business will allow him to live anywhere he likes and he and his bride spent a few days in Boise assessing the city as a potential new home. Searching for an alternative to the old rat race of long commutes and no sense of community, smart folks look West and have for ever. Like all young parents, they want good schools and a good environmental for the kids. I wasn’t selling paradise and I didn’t need to. Boise – and other good cities in the West – tends to sell themselves on the basis of “livability.”

Dan Kemmis is right. Livability, quality of life, whatever you call it, is an economic driver. The real challenge is not to screw it up or undervalue what we have and, perhaps too often, take for granted.

Honoring Sustainability

Lava Lake LandLava Lake Land and Livestock Claims Andrus Award

Former Idaho Governor and Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus has devoted his life of public service to finding the delicate sweet spot between a robust economy that produces good jobs and the conservation of the land, air and water that make so much of the western United States such a special place.

Fifteen years ago, Andrus, fresh from his last of four terms as Idaho governor, had a major hand in helping launch Sustainable Northwest, a regional non-profit dedicated to helping nurture local collaboration aimed at sustainable economic development that fits with a conservation ethic. It is a terrific organization that has done much good work.

This Thursday night in Portland, Sustainable Northwest presents its annual awards – named after Andrus – to, among others, Hailey, Idaho’s Lava Lake Land and Livestock. Lava Lake produces – I’m biased, but I know my my lamb chops – the best grass-fed, organic lamb you can find anywhere. The ranch is the foothills of Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains just southeast of Sun Valley.

The ranch will be honored for its national leadership in sustainable agriculture and landscape scale conservation. Worthy recipients, great product, good for the economy and the environment.