Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson has been receiving well deserved accolades for his tireless efforts during the last 16 years to have major portions of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains preserved as wilderness. The resulting legislation, now signed into law, creates three new Idaho wilderness areas: the White Clouds Wilderness, the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness and the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness. Together, they cover more than 275,000 acres.
In addition to Simpson, there were many other players who helped make this possible, including a variety of environmental organizations, Sen. Jim Risch, former Gov. Cecil Andrus, and hundreds of individuals interested in protecting the area from future development. But I would suggest that none of this would have happened without the previous efforts of one Idahoan, the late Sen. Frank Church.
I don’t suggest that because of Church’s leading role in passage of the Wilderness Act and the creation of other Idaho wilderness areas. Rather, I suggest it because Church almost single-handedly made it acceptable for senators, congressmen and governors, Republicans and Democrats alike, to pursue the protection of Idaho’s natural resources.
Idaho became a territory in 1863 due entirely to the discovery of gold. From the beginning, Idaho was viewed as a place where there was money to be made by exploiting its natural resources. Mining came first, followed by agriculture and timber. Of equal importance was an abundant supply of water to feed those industries.
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For 100 years, few Idaho issues received greater attention than the exploitation of the state’s natural resources. When the Idaho Constitutional Convention was held in 1889, one of the most hotly debated topics was what to do with the land that would be transferred to the state by the federal government. The debate wasn’t whether any of it should be protected from exploitation, but whether it should be immediately sold off to private interests or held and developed by the state. In the end, those interested in having the state exploit the state-owned lands won.
Perhaps no major Idaho politician better exemplified the mind-set of the state on natural resource issues during this period than Sen. Weldon Heyburn, a Republican from Idaho’s Silver Valley. Heyburn was an attorney whose practice focused heavily on representing mining interests. During his tenure in the Senate, from 1903-1912, much of his effort was focused on fighting the emerging national conservation efforts of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. Heyburn was opposed to the creation of national forests because he didn’t feel that government should control vast tracts of land in the western U.S.
This mindset was understandable. The United States was a growing country. It needed lumber for construction, gold, silver and lead for manufacturing and farm commodities to feed the people. Idaho had them all and if its economy was to grow, it needed to exploit both land and water. In addition, Idaho’s growing population didn’t come from people seeking enjoyment of its many natural wonders. Rather, they came seeking to improve their economic lot.
Sometimes the argument wasn’t whether or not to develop natural resources, but rather who should develop them. The debate in the constitutional convention over future ownership of lands was one example. Another was the debate in the 1950s over who should build hydroelectric generating dams in Hells Canyon. There was little opposition to construction of these dams. The bigger debate was over who should build them.
When Church was first elected to the Senate in 1956, the state had suffered through nearly three decades of economic restrictions. The Great Depression had brought about a general economic collapse. Then followed World War II with rationing and the lack of manpower. By the mid-1950s, with the Depression, Word War II and the Korean conflict behind it, Idaho was ready to once again become a juggernaut of economic activity and most of that activity would depend upon the state’s plentiful natural resources. Conservation and environmental protection were not high on the state’s list of priorities. Idaho didn’t even have a state parks system.
But Church had a deep appreciation for largely undeveloped areas of Idaho such as the Sawtooth Mountains and sought the means to protect them. His role in passing the Wilderness Act opened the door for subsequent pieces of legislation he would sponsor, including the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968; creation of the Sawtooth National Recreation area in 1972; the Endangered Wilderness Act of 1978, which created the Gospel Hump Wilderness; and the Central Idaho Wilderness Act of 1980, which created what is now the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
Church’s actions demonstrated to other politicos that there was public support in Idaho for the protection of some of the state’s most treasured natural areas. His pioneering efforts opened the door to future Idaho officials such as Andrus, McClure, Mike Crapo, Simpson and Risch to make protection of some of Idaho most scenic resources a part of their legacies. But it all began with Frank Church.
Boise’s Martin Peterson is a longtime observer of Idaho politics and presently a member of the Statesman Editorial Board. He is retired.