Letters from the West

A fire burned toward the governor’s house. ‘I hope they took my guns out,’ he mused.

I knew Cecil Andrus before I knew Idaho.

Andrus, the former Idaho governor and the Interior secretary under President Jimmy Carter, died Thursday. Covering him was the most rewarding reporting of my 42-year career.

As a member of Carter’s Cabinet, in August 1979, he toured the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior in Wisconsin. With him came Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the father of Earth Day; Rep. David Obey, the local Democratic congressman; and Russell Dickenson, the National Park Service director. I went along as a reporter for the Ashland (Wisc.) Daily Press.

It was two days after my wife, Tina, gave birth to my twin sons, Dan and David. They were born a month premature and had to go to a prenatal care unit at a hospital in Duluth, Minn., 65 miles away. I stayed with them the night before the tour and had to speed along the lakeshore to catch the boat leaving Bayfield at 8 a.m.

Andrus and Nelson were good friends. They had fun picking blueberries on Basswood Island, touring a lighthouse with Obey and his wife, and exploring the Devil’s Island sea caves carved out of the red brownstone that makes up the islands. They shared a glass of water right out of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater body in the world.

On the way back to Bayfield, Nelson’s staff got word that protesters from the American Indian Movement were waiting at the dock to confront Andrus. They were there because of a three-month occupation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribal Center by a dissident faction of tribal members.

Nelson’s staff asked me to brief Andrus since I had covered the event from the start. I gave him a 10-minute summary as we approached Bayfield. That’s when I first saw how Cecil Andrus worked.

He stepped off the boat into the middle of the protesters, who immediately circled him and shared their dispute. Andrus said he knew what was going on and he proceeded to regurgitate my briefing to them in detail.

Their eyes got wide as he finished with a commitment to send a solicitor to the reservation to solve the issue the following Monday. Before the end of the month, the solicitor had worked out a new election that ended the occupation and changed the leadership of the Chippewa tribe.

I had never seen anyone take command so quickly, deftly and confidently. I had no idea that six years later, I would move to Idaho and cover his return to the governorship, his nuclear waste gamesmanship, and his continuing fight for salmon and places such as the Boulder-White Clouds.

In 1987, Andrus and Republican Sen. Jim McClure tried to pass a statewide wilderness bill to resolve an issue that divided both of their key constituencies, the timber industry and the preservation community. Andrus was going to horse-pack into the Palisades Wilderness Study Area in Eastern Idaho with the state Fish and Game Commission.

I asked to tag along, but the commission and late Fish and Game Director Jerry Conley resisted. Apparently the commissioners didn’t want a reporter there when they were drinking whiskey around the campfire.

I refused to give in, pointing to Idaho’s open meetings law. They told me at first I was going to have hike up myself. But eventually, perhaps with Andrus’ prodding, they gave in and allowed me to ride along.

When they arrived at the Idaho Falls Airport to ride to the trail head, Andrus gave me a thumbs up and said, “Good for you to stand up to them!”

We rode up the 9-mile trail to camp, where Andrus and I went off with our fly rods to catch Yellowstone cutthroats on pheasant-tailed wet flies in Upper Palisades Lake.

The next morning — soon after 6 a.m. as we were getting our coffee — a young Fish and Game staffer ran up from the trail into camp short of air. Scott Reinecker, now the department’s wildlife bureau chief, had run the 9 miles up to 6,800 feet to share some distressing news for the governor.

“When I left the trailhead five hours ago a wildfire was burning toward your house,” Reinecker said. “Your wife is safe.”

Andrus took the news silently, with only a look of concern on his face. A minute later he said to the assembled group: “Whatever will happen already has. Let’s get on with our day.”

A few minutes later, as flapjacks were served, Andrus expressed the only worry he showed until we got back into radio range hours later.

“I hope they took my guns out,” he said.

The fire in Military Reserve was stopped and no houses were lost, including his in the Foothills above.

My last time with him was in March, on stage at Boise State University with U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson and Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, to celebrate their success protecting the Boulder-White Clouds as wilderness.

Andrus and Simpson fist-bumped, a revolutionary act in the time of polarized governance. That is the Andrus and Idaho I am glad I knew.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker