He ‘changed the course of conservation in Idaho.’ Now this outdoorsman is retiring

When Rick Johnson first came to Idaho, he didn’t have a plan.

“I came to Ketchum in 1979 for a summer based solely on wanting to be in the West,” he said. Johnson, now 61, will retire from his post as executive director of the Idaho Conservation League on June 28 after 24 years.

A lot has changed since Johnson first joined the conservation league as a volunteer in the Wood River Valley. That summer in the West turned to several years, during which Johnson serendipitously discovered a love for conservation work and became a conservation league employee. Over his career, Johnson’s moves in environmental advocacy grew more and more deliberate.

It’s clear to look at the Idaho Conservation League that Johnson leaves in the hands of longtime colleague Justin Hayes and see how Johnson carefully shaped it from the organization he found 40 years ago. He forged ties with unusual allies, chose ICL’s small battles and big wins and ultimately earned it a name as one of the most respected conservation groups in the state.

Still, in his final weeks at the organization’s Downtown Boise building, Johnson’s office bore a poster nestled between photos, maps, statements and awards telling the story of his life’s work. It was a nod to his original impromptu attitude and a bridge to what he has since accomplished. It read: “We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.”

Making ICL ‘a permanent home for conservation in Idaho’

Before Johnson started orchestrating the Idaho Conservation League’s actual strategic plans, he volunteered with the group while starting a construction business. Little by little, the idea of conservation as job occurred to him.

“As a volunteer, I started to get a couple of opportunities to travel to Washington, D.C.,” Johnson said. “It was on one of those trips that I realized there are a whole bunch of people who get to do this for a living.”

Johnson wanted to be one of those people. Soon, he started as an ICL staffer in the Wood River Valley, where he spent several years. While there, he was approached by the Sierra Club. Johnson moved to Seattle to work for the group and spent years ferrying back and forth to D.C. and fighting for protections for the spotted owl. It was with the Sierra Club that he cut his teeth in policy and advocacy before the executive director position opened at the Idaho Conservation League.

“ICL has been like a part of my family; Idaho is a part of me,” Johnson wrote in his application for the job. (He still has the application on the original fax paper that arrived at the ICL.)

He came aboard as executive director in 1995, where he remained as the organization’s leader for roughly half of ICL’s 50-year existence.

Rick Johnson - Idaho Conservation League.jpg
Rick Johnson, director of the Idaho Conservation League, walks in the Foothills in this 1998 Statesman file photo. Johnson plans to retire from ICL in June. He’ll be one of several prominent outdoors leaders to do so in recent months. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

“(Rick has) completely transformed that organization,” said Ed Cannady, a former Sawtooth National Forest ranger. “He’s turned them into an organization that makes a difference.”

It certainly wasn’t easy.

“Nobody had told me how bleak ICL’s finances were,” Johnson said. “We were broke. No budget, nothing.”

“He grew the organization significantly and, of course, grew its effectiveness,” said Pat Ford, former executive director of ICL.

What was a staff of four people under Ford has swelled to 22. Now the group boasts an endowment. It owns its headquarters at 6th and Franklin streets in Boise.

“This is a permanent home for conservation in Idaho,” Johnson said. “It’s not just that funky little nonprofit anymore.”

Among the historic events that he was a part of in his 23-year tenure as executive director of Idaho Conservation League, Rick Johnson is proud of the collaborative work that got the Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness designated. On a trip shortly after the legislation was signed, Johnson, left, Rep. Mike Simpson and his chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, led a trip to Castle Peak in the newly designated wilderness area. Ed Cannady

Building the Boulder-White Clouds — and bonds with politicians

In his tenure at ICL, Johnson has tackled plenty of issues. But one is almost synonymous with his name: the creation of the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness, a trio of Central Idaho backcountry areas covering more than 275,000 acres.

He teamed up with Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, a conservative politician who some in the conservation community thought of as an unlikely ally.

“He very intentionally worked with an Idaho Republican leader,” Ford said. “And of course, they’re all Republicans, so if you’re not doing that, you’re not working at all.”

It was a move taken from the playbook of former Idaho legislators Cecil Andrus, a close friend of Johnson’s who helped save the same wilderness area from mining in the 1970s, and Frank Church, for whom Idaho’s largest wilderness area is named.

“Rick’s vision got Mike Simpson engaged,” said Cannady, who also played an integral role in the creation of the Boulder-White Clouds as a forest ranger. “And once that happens, Mike is like a pit bull when he connects with something he cares about.”

Simpson came to see Johnson as “a partner in conservation,” the legislator said while honoring Johnson in the congressional record on May 15.

“When I first met Rick in the 1990s, I would describe the environmental community as having a single mission of fighting and objecting to almost anything proposed by the resource industry,” Simpson said. “Through the years, I am pleased to say that both Rick and I have evolved and recognized that there are other ways to accomplish conservation.”

Johnson said the experience was “central to change at the ICL.” It steeled his reputation as someone willing to listen and compromise.

Mike Simpson and Rick Johnson hug after President Barack Obama signs the bill protecting the Boulder-White Clouds Aug. 7, 1915 White House Photo

“Rick became very much a believer in this whole collaborative process,” said John Freemuth, chairman of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

Legislators and executives in industries like logging and agriculture have come to see Johnson — and other environmental advocacy groups — in a different light thanks to that collaboration.

“He literally changed the course of conservation in Idaho,” Cannady said.

In Simpson’s May 15 speech, he said those who visit the wilderness should recognize the role Johnson played in its creation.

“As future generations of Idahoans gaze over the beautiful vistas of the Cecil Andrus-White Clouds, the Hemingway-Boulders, the McClure-Jerry Peaks, and the Owyhees, they should be thanking Rick Johnson for his work, his effort, and most importantly his ability to compromise with others,” Simpson said.

Future generations of ICL

Future generations of Idahoans will see plenty of Johnson’s influence, even if they never make it to the wilderness he fought so hard to create.

Even without Johnson at the helm, ICL is charting a course to fulfill the plans he helped make, focusing on climate change, public lands and the recovery of Idaho’s salmon, steelhead and Snake River.

For years, Johnson has laid the groundwork of mentorship. ICL spearheaded a program called Emerging Leaders for Idaho’s Environment that works to bring new blood into conservation, and Johnson meticulously planned his retirement in such a way that his successor would have plenty of time to ask questions and seek counsel. (Though Johnson said Hayes, his successor who has spent 18 years with ICL already, hardly needs any guidance.)

Johnson is quick to acknowledge the community — the staff, board, members and more — who have bolstered ICL through the years and made its accomplishments possible.

“Rick says, ‘Well, it takes a village,’ ” Cannady said. “And I say, ‘Yeah, Rick, but you were the mayor.’ ”

After a lifetime spent in Idaho conservation, Johnson said he won’t disappear from the scene when he retires. After all, he has to see what ICL plans — or does — in the future.

“I feel pretty good that I’ve helped raise the bar,” Johnson said, “ ... and the achievements of the ICL tomorrow will be greater than we’ve done before.”

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