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 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.”
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.
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.