Andrus, Conservation, Interior Department

War on the West…

Amid the hourly chaos that is the Trump government it is possible to lose sight of the truly significant, while focusing on the merely crazy or simply incompetent. 

So it was with the appointment – without Senate confirmation – of the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the announced intention of the administration to effectively gut the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The two events – a hardly a coincidence – occurred a few days apart. 

Bald Eagle – one of the species saved by the ESA

It turns out the most incompetent administration in anyone’s lifetime is competent in one way: it knows how to trash the environment

The appointment of William Perry Pendley, a hard rightwing lawyer who has repeatedly voiced support for selling public lands, is in keeping with the administration’s appointments of Ryan Zinke, the ethically challenged former Secretary of the Interior, and current Secretary David Bernhardt, a former coal industry lobbyist. 

These guys don’t care about public access to public lands for western hunters and fishermen, backpackers and sightseers; they’re all about lessening protections and being cozy with the west’s extractive industries. You’d be naïve not to think that they will, as one-time Secretary Cecil D. Andrus said, cater to “the rape, ruin and run” crowd. 

Pendley has a particularly pernicious reputation. As High Country News noted recently:  “The Wyoming native has extreme anti-government views. He despises the Endangered Species Act, once writing the bedrock conservation law seeks ‘to kill or prevent anybody from making a living on federal land.’ He has sued the federal government numerous times in the last three decades, including over ESA listings and national monument designations. He’s called the science of climate change ‘junk science’ and blasted the Obama administration for waging a perceived ‘war on coal.’”

In a January 2016 article in the National Review, Pendley, who styles himself as one of the original “Sagebrush Rebels,” boldly asserted that, “The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold.” In that article Pendley championed Illinois as a model all western states should aspire to. Ninety-eight percent of the land in Illinois is owned privately. Try finding a place to hunt on public land in the Land of Lincoln. 

Pendley, a supporter of the anti-government, anti-public lands Bundy crowd, also traffics in the old myth that the 1980s “Sagebrush Rebellion” was a spontaneous reaction to policies advanced by the Carter Administration when Andrus was running the Interior Department. It’s nonsense. Big money interests and corporate exploiters have been lusting over your land for generations. They always wait for an attractive political moment to pounce and they now have a willing accomplice in the White House.  

Ronald Reagan embraced the ‘Sagebrush Rebellion,’ not a new idea, but one regularly recycled and more about politics than public land policy

In 1980, the Interior Department did a study of the various efforts to liquidate the west’s vast public acreage and, to no great surprise, found the “Sagebrush Rebellion” was as old as the hills. To quote from that report: 

  • In 1832 the Public Land Committee of the U.S. Senate claimed that state sovereignty was threatened by federal land ownership. The rest of Congress, however, maintained its discretionary authority to manage such land without limitation and rejected the complaint.
  • In 1930 the Hoover Commission proposed to cede much of the public domain to the states. The recommendation was opposed by both the eastern Congressional majority and by the Western states, who having already acquired the most productive land, wanted no responsibility for the “waste lands” remaining.
  • In the 1940s Senator Pat McCarran (D., Nevada) conducted a series of investigations into the Grazing Service (one of BLM’s predecessors) and the Forest Service, both of whom were trying to bring livestock grazing under control. In 1946 Senator Edward Robertson of Wyoming sponsored a bill to convey all unreserved and unappropriated lands to their respective states. BLM was formed the same year.
  • In 1956 Senator Russell Long (D., Louisiana) proposed similar legislation.

The new “acting” head of the BLM is just the latest in a long line of hucksters who want to limit your ownership of national forests and rangelands. They’re driven by an ultra-conservative mindset that don’t just devalue public land, but considers it valueless.  

The decision to gut much of the enforcement mechanism of the ESA was, of course, immediately endorsed by Idaho’s anti-conservation Senate delegation and Rep. Russ Fulcher, and it represents an even more blatant attack on the environment. Fulcher, parroting talking points that could have been produced by the “rape, ruin and run” crowd, congratulated Trump and company for “increasing transparency and continuing to fix this broken law.”

Richard Nixon signed this “broken law.” It has saved bald eagles and grizzly bears and countless other species. Leave it to Trump, a guy whose idea of roughing it is a resort bathroom without gold fixtures, to shred the last bit of credibility Republicans had on the environment. 

The legacy of America’s public lands is one sure thing we can hand off to our grandchildren. No other country on earth has as much abundance of the open and accessible public lands, as well as the wildlife diversity that literally defines the American west. The land doesn’t belong to a president, or a blinkered rightwing lawyer or a coal company. It belongs to all of us, and our kids. 

I’ll believe Republicans like Jim Risch and Mike Crapo value public lands when I see them insist on putting the acting BLM director through a Senate confirmation vote. I’ll believe Fulcher cares about your kid’s western legacy when he speaks, even once, about the value of the wide-open west without sounding like a lobbyist for an oil company. 

The folks who regular devalue the idea of America’s public lands often talk about “balance,” which is vitally important in a region where many people make a living off the land. But they rarely talk about stewardship or how to harmonize the needs of resource industries with the legitimate values of conservation. 

“When the West fully learns,” the great writer Wallace Stegner once said, “that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”

Conservation, Energy, Salmon, Simpson

A Surprising Politician

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson is one of the few politicians these days that can genuinely surprise with his words and actions. He surprised me twice in the last week. 

The original version of this column was a lengthy critique of Simpson for his surprisingly tepid parroting of White House talking points related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Almost immediately after Mueller’s 448-page report was issued late last week, and certainly before Simpson had time to digest its content, the Congressman from Idaho’s Second District, dismissed it entirely by invoking the “liberal media and Democrat (sic) leadership” that “have spoon fed the American people a false narrative about Trump/Russia collusion.”

Read it…it’s important and it’s history in real time.

Never mind, as journalist Susan B. Glasser noted, that Mueller has in fact produced “surely one of the most damning insider accounts ever written about a Presidency in modern times,” documenting a “breathtaking culture of lying and impunity, distrust and double-dealing.” If you have avoided reading Mueller’s work you are avoiding your responsibility as a citizen. The Republican special counsel, appointed by a Republican, has produced a document for the ages about the shocking conduct of a Republican president. In his heart of hearts Mike Simpson surely knows this amounts to a very serious matter. 

Having known Simpson since his days as Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, I’ve come to expect more of him. He’s not – at least not often – a blind partisan, and unlike his Idaho congressional colleagues he is solution oriented, a real legislator. So Simpson disappoints with his dismissal of Trumpian misconduct, but then he almost immediately surprises – really, truly, amazingly surprises – by delivering what is surely the most important speech by an Idaho politician in at least 15 years. 

Simpson was a featured speaker earlier this week at a conference on salmon and energy organized by the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University and he displayed all the political leadership and courage that his admirers have come to expect. 

“All of Idaho’s salmon runs are either threatened or endangered,” Simpson told a room full of energy producers and users, including the Bonneville Power Administrator, farmers, fish proponents and assorted other advocates. “Look at the number of returning salmon and the trend line is not going up. It is going down.”

It is not enough, Simpson said, to keep salmon from extinction. “We should manage them to bring back a healthy, sustainable population in Idaho.” Simpson said, “I am going to stay alive long enough to see salmon return to healthy populations in Idaho.” 

Admitting that it won’t be easy or without discomfort, even pain, Simpson essentially threw down a gauntlet to the standpat policy makers who have slow rolled salmon recovery for twenty years, technically operating the Columbia and Snake River system in clear violation of federal law. Simpson did not call for breeching the lower Snake River dams, the chief culprit to allowing juvenile wild salmon to migrate downriver and eventually return to spawn in Idaho, but critically he also did not rule out removal. 

With his speech on salmon and energy Idaho’s Mike Simpson positioned himself to lead the Pacific Northwest to sensible solutions on the region’s most difficult issues. (IPTV photo)

The room was silent as Simpson described the region’s dilemma – and the moral imperative – to preserve its most iconic species. 

And the silence was more reverential than shocked. More than 400 regional policy makers and advocates were seeing and hearing something that has become so rare these days as to cause a slack jawed response – they were seeing political guts and real leadership. 

It was clear that Simpson and his staff – particularly chief of staff Lindsay Slater, who was pivotal to his boss’s historic legislation creating wilderness protection for the White Clouds and Boulder mountains in central Idaho – has thought long and hard about what it will take to break the regional stalemate over salmon. He’s ready to lead a legislative effort to create a new Northwest Power Act that comprehensively deals with BPA’s fragile financial status, the economic impacts for a host of stakeholders, fixes river operations and restores sustainable levels of fish in Idaho. 

Simpson also understands that the Pacific Northwest can once and finally legislative fix these seemingly intractable problems with wisdom that originates in the region or, as he put it, “Someone else will write it and impose it upon us.”

Perhaps the best signal that Simpson has embraced the role of salmon advocate was his moving personal testament to the incredible story of the fish. The congressman, who has come to speak passionately of the wonders of Idaho’s unspoiled places, related a story about his own visit to March Creek, the magically tributary to the Middle Fork of the Salmon, where he watched an adult salmon complete the seemingly impossible voyage from ocean to Idaho backcountry. 

“She swam 900 miles to get back to Marsh Creek,” Simpson said. “All to lay her eggs for the next generation of salmon. It was the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new one. These are the most incredible creatures, I think, that God has created. It is a cycle God created.”

A conservative Republican speaking this way is, well, both surprising and remarkably encouraging. Simpson has undoubtedly shocked some who are invested in the status quo. Many of his natural allies may well read his moving account of why we must finally, seriously, passionately engage with real solutions and shudder at the complexities of dealing comprehensively and successfully with energy, fish, agriculture and transportation. But if they discount Simpson’s determination they will misread badly the congressman’s commitment. 

Politicians don’t often make speeches like Mike Simpson made this week and, while he surprised me – disappointed me – on Mueller I’m more than happy to salute his courage and commitment to salmon. He’s going to tackle these issues. Take that to the bank. Every one of us who cares about fish, the region’s future, our energy resources and the world we’ll leave to our kids and grandkids should follow his leadership. 

—–O—–

Airport Security, Andrus, Boise, Conservation, Egan, Idaho Politics, Labor Day, McClure, Refugees, Simpson, The West

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.

Conservation, Stimpson

Remembering Ed Stimpson – Update

StimpsonA Class Act, A True Citizen

At a time when coarseness and disrespect seems to be the norm in our civic and political dialogue, Ed Stimpson was from an older and better school. He was a gentlemen first and an involved citizen always.

Ed died on Wednesday after a tough, courageous battle with lung cancer. The unfairness of his death at 75 made all the more hard to take by the fact that the lanky aviation expert was never a smoker. Life treats the good guys just as roughly as the rest of us.

[After posting this Friday, I came across a fine tribute to Ed from an old friend in Washington State.]

The Associated Press described Ed as an “aviation advocate” and he was that for certain. He was the first president of the General Aviation Manufactures Association and was appointed by President Bill Clinton, with the rank of ambassador, to represent the United States on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization. That group, based in Montreal, makes the rules for aviation world-wide. George W. Bush kept Ed on in the position and he served until 2004. He was recognized internationally for his leadership and he and his equally civic-minded partner, Dorothy, made quite the pair. It is hard to imagine another couple so engaged and so willing to play a role in making their town, their state and their world a better place.

Stimpson received the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 1998 for his public service contributions to aviation, an honor he shared with Charles A. Lindbergh, World War II pilot Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle and Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong. Fast company. To know Ed was to understand how at home he was in such company.

The National Business Aviation Associated called him an industry icon. Aviation Week said the “tall, quiet, elegant and effective” Stimpson was one of the industry’s most respected voices in Washington, D.C.

I first met Ed and Dottie Stimpson 20 years ago when they arrived in Boise – Ed was working for the old Morrison-Knudsen Corp. – and together they immediately became involved leaders in civic and political life. Dottie almost singlehandlely created the thriving City Club of Boise and the couple has been recognized for their many contributions to a civil society and for creating opportunities for young people. Countless political candidates and even a budding environmental writer, then-Senator Al Gore, benefited from the elegant receptions held over the years in the Stimpson home.

My wife, Pat, and I also benefited on several occasions from Ed’s ability to grill a mean lamb chop, keep the glasses full and the conversation rolling. No visit with Ed and Dottie was ever complete without updates on the latest books, the next trip or the most recent campaign. Like everyone who knew him, I’ll miss Ed for many, many reasons. We should all hope to leave such a legacy: gentleman, elegant, effective, a completely decent man who made a real difference.

Yeats’ famous quote seems particularly appropriate: “Think where man’s glory begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends…”

Ed Stimpson was simply one of the good guys.