Back in the day, they were young and idealistic. When things didnt go their way, they threw bombs in-house lingo for loud, uncompromising opposition to whatever they didnt like.
Inspired by the first Earth Day, they formed the Idaho Conservation League in 1973 an era of environmentalism and, by todays standards, centrist politics. They thought Idahos politics would drift more to their liking, not further away.
They pounded tables. They drew hard ideological lines. They made mistakes.
Then they got older. Worn out by setbacks and endless work that sometimes bore no fruit, they learned a lesson that has come to define the group.
We dont let perfect be the enemy of the good, executive director Rick Johnson said.
Johnson embodies the path the Idaho Conservation League has traveled in its first 40 years. He started at the league in the 1980s, when he was, by his own description, this young, crazy guy.
Getting older, you just see the world a little bit differently, he said. And maybe a little more patient. And I think that in that sense, Im reflective of the organization as a whole. All of us have aged.
These days, compromise isnt a dirty word at the leagues headquarters a few blocks northeast of the state Capitol. Its an approach the group embraces, one it has used to grow into what former Gov. Cecil Andrus called without question the leading conservation organization in the state of Idaho.
Like the group itself, Andrus relationship with Johnson and the conservation league has evolved. Johnson admits that some of his antics in his early years must have exasperated Andrus. He and his fellow staffers were more scrappy back then, Johnson said, and a little less understanding of the political dance that someone like Andrus was expert at.
Andrus confirmed as much in a video celebrating the conservation leagues anniversary.
Forty years ago, the organization was young and it was more bombastic, a bomb-throwing group that wanted publicity and opposed everything, the former governor said.
Today, the conservation league has 18 employees, about 10,000 members, a $2 million endowment and offices in Boise, Ketchum and Sandpoint.
SMALL STEPS, GIANT LEAPS
The league compromises because its staff wants to get things done even just little things, program director Justin Hayes said.
Our membership also expects us to accomplish something. They dont want us just to suit up and go do battle, Hayes said. They want us to accomplish things in our state. They want us to protect these special places, to make rules that protect air quality and water quality and work for industry.
Hayes and Johnson said compromise and inclusion helped a wide range of oppressing minds reach some of the deals the league holds most dear, including a rule protecting roadless federal land in Idaho, a ballot measure voters passed to protect the Boise Foothills and an initiative that designated 517,000 acres of Owyhee County as federal wilderness.
They said some of the leagues biggest mistakes came when it spurned proposals that would have brought small measures of progress and instead held out for perfect conclusions.
In the 1980s, U.S. Sen. James McClure offered a statewide wilderness bill that no one at the league liked very much. The way they saw it, the bill didnt do enough to protect areas such as the Boulder and White Cloud mountains and parts of the Payette National Forest.
The league was used to working with Sen. Frank Church, a Democrat who did more to preserve wild areas in Idaho than perhaps any other lawmaker. But Church lost his bid for a fifth term in 1980.
That was the moment we should have learned to work with Republicans, Johnson said. But we didnt.
The league rejected McClures plan, and a quarter-century passed before the next Idaho wilderness bill became law.
In hindsight, that was crazy, Johnson said. It would have been the smartest thing in the world to be able to have figured out how to work with the new senator, a Republican, and stay on that momentum of passing a bill every few years. But then, it was crystal clear: Well fight this and then the politics will get better. The politics didnt get better.
Today, working with Republicans is a way of life. Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican unpopular with conservationists across the nation, has worked with the league for a decade to designate hundreds of thousands of acres in the Boulder-White Clouds region as a wilderness area. In an email Thursday, Simpson praised the league for the collaborative way in which they have worked with me.
While we dont always agree on tactics, I have a great deal of respect for the mission of the Idaho Conservation League and the people who work every day to fulfill that mission, Simpson said. I think everyone can agree that ICL has evolved over the last 40 years into a significant leader on conservation and natural resources policy in Idaho.
PROGRESS DESPITE POLITICS
On the conservation leagues anniversary video, Owyhee County rancher Chris Black praised the league for learning the ability to leave politics behind during negotiations over the Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2009.
In 2000, we were running a national monument campaign to turn their entire county into a national monument, Johnson said. And I can tell you for sure Chris Black was not going to be doing any kind of testimonial for ICL in the year 2000.
Compromise might be necessary to reach agreements such as the Owyhee wilderness designation, but the harder elements in Idahos conservation community say thats too steep a price.
Some of the leagues compromises are not very desirable, claimed Jon Marvel, executive director of the Hailey-based conservation group Western Watersheds Project.
Specifically, Marvel said, Johnson and his staffs focus on wilderness issues undermines the groups effectiveness when fighting for cleaner water or against adverse effects of mining and livestock grazing.
Overall, Marvel said, the league is generally positive and essential, the role they play in Idaho, considering our states politics and the rather, dare I say, Neanderthal ideas of the Republican majority in the legislature and the governors office.
TOO READY TO COMPROMISE?
Marvel said the groups ties to politicians such as Simpson, Gov. Butch Otter and Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch limit its influence.
In a desire to accommodate the politics of Idaho, which as we know is very challenging for conservation, in my judgment, perhaps too much has been given away in some of these agreements, Marvel said.
Mary Lou Reed doesnt see it that way. The former state senator from Coeur dAlene helped found the ICL in 1973 with the purpose of influencing the Legislature to protect nature in Idaho.
Learning to give hasnt compromised the groups core values, Reed said. If Johnson and the rest of the staff made concessions, she said, they did so because it was the best path to progress.
Im not disappointed at all, she said. I think theyre amazing, the way theyve been able to adapt. Theyre effective. Theyre able to have goals and get them done.
Its not as if the league cant do battle anymore, Johnson said. The group still pounds tables and throws bombs when it has to. The difference is that these days, people actually listen when that happens, Johnson said.
When we do harder-edge things, its not viewed as our default setting, he said.
Sven Berg: 377-6275