Republican Rep. Mike Simpson and Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson hugged Saturday for the umpteenth time since they stood together behind President Barack Obama in August as he signed the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill.
A series of celebrations since have marked that historic moment when 16 years of slow and sometimes painful work created 275,000 acres of wilderness in Central Idaho with a unanimous vote of both houses of Congress.
Last week’s celebration came where Simpson’s quest began, at the ICL’s annual Wild Idaho conference at Redfish Lake Lodge.
In 1999, the newly elected Republican congressman first spoke at Wild Idaho to a full house of environmentalists, many of whom likely did not vote for him. Simpson told them what he thought about “big government” and about budget deficits and about environmentalists who go to Washington and to court to get what they want.
Simpson told the ICL he was willing to work to protect the Boulder-White Clouds as wilderness, if they were willing to work with him.
At that conference, Johnson asked Simpson why, as an Idaho Statesman columnist had reported, he was willing to admit he smoked pot in college but was unwilling to acknowledge his membership in the Idaho Conservation League.
“I think that says more about you than it does me,” Simpson told the surly crowd. He got barely polite applause when he finished.
Johnson surprised his followers that night by saying, “He’s right.”
A lot has changed.
Johnson and Simpson became allies and friends. Simpson’s motivation shifted from simply trying to do what Idaho leaders from Sen. Frank Church to Gov. Cecil Andrus to Sen. James McClure were unable to do — protect a beloved Idaho landscape — to saving a place he has come to love himself.
Johnson shifted the league’s tactics and strategy. Rather than using the courts and connections in Washington, D.C., the league worked collaboratively with communities and industry to find common ground and compromise that benefits all Idahoans. His young and increasingly professional staff are as comfortable in the Idaho Capitol and in county courthouses as they are in Congress.
When a big company comes to Simpson with a proposal that might have environmental implications, he told the Wild Idaho audience Saturday, he sends them to Johnson. They will be better off resolving any environmental challenges by working with the ICL first, rather than simply ignoring their interests, Simpson said.
When investors were trying to build a coal-fired fertilizer plant in American Falls, Simpson sent them to Johnson. His staff persuaded the national Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign to sign on to Idaho’s first carbon emissions air quality permit in 2009, based on the plant’s commitment to cut carbon emissions by half. It was likely the only coal plant the Sierra Club did not oppose.
“Conservation can complement Idaho’s conservative values when we don’t look like we’re trying to overthrow them,” Johnson said.
Simpson came to the podium Saturday to accept the ICL’s public service award, which has been given to just one other Idaho leader, Andrus. The crowd, this time a little grayer and most of them strong supporters, gave Simpson a standing ovation.
Simpson shares many of their values, even as he remains strongly opposed to the Affordable Care Act, is a frequent critic of the EPA and is a proponent of a balanced budget. But ICL’s members love that he’s mostly an advocate for the process of governing, even when they disagree with the outcome.
So Simpson brought sparkling wine to toast their shared victory and spent most of the night signing the more than 100 copies of the Boulder-White Clouds bill, overlaid on Simpson’s own photo of Castle Peak. His plan to climb the 11,815-foot mountain is evident in the 68 pounds he has lost on his quest to get fit.
“Thanks to all of you,” Simpson said. “You are the ones who made this happen.”
Simpson’s chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, also was given an award. Slater said that Simpson had been willing to lose an election if necessary to protect the place he holds dear.
But the conservation and sporting communities love Simpson for more than his work on the Boulder-White Clouds. At a time when most Western Republicans either finesse or support transferring control over federal lands to their states, Simpson has become a defender of the public domain.
“A lot of the reason a lot of us love the West and a lot of us love Idaho is because a lot of us love public lands,” Simpson said.