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Know the West

The last living Democrat in Idaho lays it on the line

 

Cecil Andrus writes the way he governed - in a brisk, plain-spoken style. His autobiography, Cecil Andrus: Politics Western Style, is as much a survival guide for Western Democrats and conservationists in hostile terrain as it is the story of his political life. How did Andrus, a former logger and an outspoken Democrat, survive 27 years in politics that included four terms as Idaho's governor and four years as secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter? Read the book; it's a good story.

In these times of presidential indiscretion and nasty mud-slinging, it's a pleasure to read about a political life based on integrity, moderation and enlightened compromise. It is also refreshing to read an account of Idaho politics that doesn't dwell on neo-Nazis, clear-cuts, famous potatoes and drivel about third-world backwardness. Not that Andrus ignores the state's shadowy side.

"We've always had an unhealthy supply of kooks in Idaho," he writes, but he is more interested in its clean water and wild places. Conservation highlights of Andrus' political career include helping to pass the Surface Mining Act and the Alaska Lands Act with its 103 million acres of wilderness and national parks, helping to establish the Idaho Birds of Prey Natural Area, Nez Perce National Historical Park, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, River of No Return Wilderness, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and orchestrating the 11th-hour designation of five California rivers as Wild and Scenic. The book conveys Andrus' deep appreciation of the wild places in Alaska and Idaho and his pride in having worked to protect them.

The book is co-authored by Joel Connelly, a seasoned journalist from Seattle. To his credit, it is difficult to measure Connelly's contribution to the book. His light-handedness is a great courtesy to Andrus, and the collaboration has created a book that is well organized and easy to read. The anecdotes are engaging, as when Andrus recounts the story of sending state troopers to turn back a train load of nuclear waste at the state line. There's also the time Ruthie the mule kicked the governor in the head while on a hunting trip.

Andrus staked his career on being a man of his word. Here Andrus writes of a confrontation with potato magnate J.R. Simplot over the need to clean up water pollution from one of his potato-processing plants:

" 'You will do this or I will wait for low water, when the outflow pipes are exposed, and take a TV crew down there and personally put plugs in those pipes,' I threatened. Simplot was blunt in return, saying words to this effect: 'Jesus Christ, Governor, one of the reasons I built that plant on the banks of the river was so that I would have somewhere to dump my trash.' We went to the mat for a time, and then he put an offer on the table. 'If you make me do it,' he said, 'will you give me your word that you will make all my competitors do as I do?' We shook on it. He kept his word. I kept mine."

The book glosses over some conservation issues. Andrus tells little about the series of contentious and futile attempts to designate wilderness in Idaho during the 1980s and early "90s. Another high-profile issue he barely mentions concerns a proposed bombing range in the Owyhee Canyonlands of southwest Idaho.

About his role in the bombing range debate, Andrus told me recently, "I've received about every national environmental award that I could, but some of my environmentalist friends still try to tear my tail off when I do one thing they disagree with," he said. "They forget that Mountain Home Air Force Base is the second largest employer in Idaho and that I had some responsibility for those jobs. At first the base was on the closure list, but I went back to D.C. and talked with the Air Force. As long as they would meet my concerns about the environment, we (the state of Idaho) would support the range." Andrus said he got the concessions he believed were most important, including an agreement that low-level flights would not approach canyon rims. Then he stood by his agreement to support the training range.

Many have not forgiven Andrus for his role in the bombing range proposal, but neither were they willing to negotiate, even when substantial land protection such as wild and scenic river, wilderness and national conservation area designations were a possibility, said Andrus.

"It made me mad, but it also left me saddened. The environmental groups were, with but the slightest hesitation, willing to demonize an old ally."

The issue remains a highly polarized debate now, primarily over the effect of low-level flights on solitude and wildlife.

Asked what he thought would make conservationists more effective in the West, he said, "Willingness to compromise and recognize that others have opinions that must be heard."

His book is full of that message, and it is just the sort of response that made him a successful leader for nearly 30 years.

Mike Medberry is a conservationist and writer in Boise, Idaho.