Letters from the West

Rocky Barker prepares to retire with an emotional walk through his past, future

Rocky Barker has specialized in covering environmental issues, including land management and wildfires, for the Idaho Statesman for 22 years.
Rocky Barker has specialized in covering environmental issues, including land management and wildfires, for the Idaho Statesman for 22 years.

The Idaho Statesman newsroom was still busy at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday as we put the finishing touches on election results.

I had spent the night roaming the halls of the Riverside Hotel talking to Republican candidates and activists both happy and sad about the outcome after months of campaigning. Then I went to the HandleBar to cover the celebration of Paulette Jordan's diverse supporters, cheering, yelling and smiling about her surprise victory for the Democratic nomination for governor. Finally, I went to the official Democratic rally at the Red Lion Downtowner — crickets.

Perhaps I dragged out the night because Tuesday was the last election I will cover as a daily journalist after 43 years. Beginning at the end of this month, I am retiring after 22 years as a environmental reporter-blogger-columnist for the Idaho Statesman.

That made election night an emotional journey backward and forward.

I saw former Gov. Phil Batt at GOP gubernatorial nominee Brad Little's victory party Tuesday, which reminded me of my first election with the Idaho Statesman. It was in 1996 when Batt defeated an initiative to overturn his 1995 nuclear waste agreement. The agreement with the federal government, which requires the government to remove all waste at the Idaho National Laboratory by 2035, remains controversial. And Batt is still fighting for it.

One of his strongest opponents then, Democratic sheep rancher John Peavey of Carey, was at Jordan's victory party with his wife, Diane Josephy Peavey. Peavey also was one of the farmers who sued Idaho Power in the 1970s demanding the company protect its water rights at the Swan Falls Dam near Kuna. When they did, the suit led to the 30-year adjudication of all of the water rights in the Snake River watershed, a critical legal landmark that will aid Idaho's development and protection in the future.

Diane's father, Alvin Josephy, who landed with the Marines at the bloody beach of Tarawa in the South Pacific as a journalist, went on to write the transformative history of American Indian resistance, "The Patriot Chiefs." The couple add their support to a new resistance movement led by Jordan, a member of the Coeur d'Alene tribe.

That's how an old journalist looks at roomfuls of the people he has covered for more than 30 years.

I leave after having done nearly everything I ever hoped to do. In 1998, I went to Africa to write about villagers who were protecting their elephants, leopards, lions and other game because they controlled the wildlife. I compared it with the conservation of grizzly bears in the communities around Yellowstone.

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Writer Rocky Barker stands in front of a fire started by poachers in Nyika National Park in Malawi.

I worked with my partner Susan Whaley on the series of editorials she wrote that called for the breaching of the four dams on the Snake River in Washington to save salmon in 1997. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt told me Susan's series kick-started the river restoration movement, and today nearly 1,000 dams have come down since.

In 1999, the Idaho Statesman sent me to Maine to watch the 160-year-old Edwards Dam come down, the first big dam ordered removed by federal regulators. I got to canoe the free-flowing river the day after, which was a spiritual event. I returned six years later to find the Kennebec River reborn.

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Rocky Barker, left, wrote "Saving all the Parts, Reconciling Economics and the Endangered Species Act." In 1999, the National Wildlife Federation awarded him its National Conservation Achievement Award. Katherine Jones, center, has been a photojournalist at The Idaho Statesman since 1990. Pete Zimowsky, right, was an outdoors writer with The Idaho Statesman.

My editors sent Pete Zimowsky, Katherine Jones and me down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River at the end of the devastating 2000 fire season to see how much of Idaho's most loved river trip would change. "Team Wilderness," as we called ourselves, paddled past still-burning stumps in October and what has become a familiar sight for Idahoans everywhere.

I have put myself and photographers like Jones, Darin Oswald and Joe Jaszewski in harm's way to cover fires across Idaho. After my own close call in the firestorm at Old Faithful in 1988, I sought to stay away from the fireline but several times I got close enough to have to dodge the falling embers and hear the jarring scream of a crown fire.

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Rocky Barker has specialized in covering environmental issues, including land management and wildfires, for the Idaho Statesman for 22 years.

I went to China with Gov. Butch Otter in 2010 to watch him do what he does best, sell Idaho and its groceries.

The Idaho Statesman sent me back to the Columbia, Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers in 2017 to re-examine the salmon and dam issue. This time I went with videographer Ali Rizvi to tell the story using video, and we are nominated for a regional Emmy.

I am proud that I retire having spent my entire career as a journalist. I have watched my colleagues here and at other newspapers be forced to leave and move on to other careers, first for simple economic reasons, and then because of the digital disruption of our industry that has undercut the business models of traditional news outlets.

But I have survived to have the choice of retiring when I want. I'm grateful to the Idaho Statesman and McClatchy for giving me that opportunity.

I leave behind dedicated hard-driving reporters, videographers and editors who will hold accountable the people we elect or have a right to expect to meet a high bar of trust.

I am also confident that the journalism that has grown under the protection of the First Amendment of the Constitution will survive and thrive in the face of its economic and technological challenges, as well as the attacks of those who fear and ridicule the truth.

If you are sad that the newspaper isn't as thick as it used to be, I feel your pain. But if you care about journalism, you must help pay for it.

So if you want good, independent journalism, make sure you have a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman and other news organizations.

I will still write — more books, I hope — some freelance, and if I'm lucky, maybe some more movies. I thank you readers for sticking with me for all these years, calling me out when you thought I needed it, correcting me and engaging me in all ways.

Rocky Barker began his career in newspapers in Wisconsin in 1975 after graduating from Northland College. He came to the Post Register in Idaho Fall in 1985. He started at the Idaho Statesman in 1996. He and his wife, Tina, have three grown children, who all live in Idaho, and five grandchildren.