If you walked in late to the Wild Idaho conference at Redfish Lodge on Saturday, the speaker would have appeared to be like many of the young professional conservationists making presentations on a cause they loved.
As Ilah Rose Hickman addressed the annual Idaho Conservation League’s annual retreat, she stood tall and poised, and spoke with the wisdom gained from the five years it took for her to get her bill through the Idaho Legislature. Only when she revealed that she began her personal quest at the age of 9 was the remarkable strength of the 14-year-old Les Bois Junior High eighth-grader so mind-boggling.
Hickman succeeded in making the giant Idaho salamander the state amphibian in the closing hours of the 2015 Legislature, when the House State Affairs Committee revived the bill it had killed early in the session. It quickly flew through both houses and was signed into law by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter.
At a time when most adults in Idaho can’t even name their state representatives, Hickman speaks with the sophistication of lobbyists who are paid tens of thousands of dollars to navigate their clients’ interests through the Idaho Capitol. At the Statesman we joke that had Ilah been put in charge of getting the state transportation package through the Legislature, the session would have ended two weeks earlier.
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She explained to the crowd of nearly 100 how she worked with State Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, who was in the House when Hickman’s journey began, to get the bill written.
That was in fifth grade, the year after a social studies teacher assigned her and other students to come up with a new state symbol and write a mock letter to their legislator in support. But Hickman wasn’t satisfied with a mock bill. She wanted to do the real thing.
In sixth grade, the bill she wrote got a committee hearing but died for a lack of votes. When Ilah was in seventh grade, Ward-Engelking had moved to the Senate and the bill started there, eventually passing the Senate. But Hickman ran out of time to get the bill through the House committee, which didn’t take it up.
She went to salamander camp with scientists studying the animal. She got teachers and students to write their lawmakers in support. She had Web page. She did interviews. She was determined.
“Once I begin something,” she told the crowd, “I like to see it through to the end.”
So she came back this year ready for every question. She even had an Idaho attorney general’s opinion that said approving the salamander as a state symbol would not invite the federal government to bring new regulations for the animal to Idaho. She told lawmakers that there are lots of giant Idaho salamanders, and no fears of extinction.
But still, Post Falls Republican Rep. Don Cheatham said he wasn’t convinced, and the committee killed the bill.
Ilah sent more letters and grew her statewide campaign around the facts, raining letters and emails down on legislators, convincing leaders to bring the bill back. Her achievement earned her an invitation to meet with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who praised her conservation work.
“She told me to keep advocating for salamanders,” Hickman said.
When Ilah concluded her speech at Redfish Lodge Saturday, the room erupted in a standing ovation. Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson suggested that she take up a new cause: protecting the Boulder-White Clouds.
Whatever she ends up doing, she said, it will include science and advocacy. And she’s considering Johnson’s suggestion.