1995: Cecil Andrus knew how to take a stand

  • Cecil Andrus/William Cook


Cecil Andrus tells the story about how, as a young logger in Orofino, Idaho, he would skid logs down streambeds because it was the easiest way to move them. Skidding, for those who don't know the rough-and-ready truths about logging, rips up the land and streams.

"Those of us in logging in those good old days simply did not know any better," Andrus says. "We were too engrossed in the everyday effort of earning a living to consider the long-term damage."

That logger would go on to engineer the protection of an area nearly twice the size of Idaho as wilderness and national parks. He would become a fierce advocate for preserving the wild salmon that used to spawn in the streams he logged beside. He would win major environmental awards and help moderate growth in the state he led as governor for 14 years (1971-1977).

Yet Andrus is the same man who pressed the development of an Air Force training range near one of the state's most pristine areas, over the objections of state and national environmentalists who revered him (HCN, 11/28/94). He also called for changes in the federal Endangered Species Act to make it easier on the economy, and he opposed reintroducing wolves in Idaho and Yellowstone.

Andrus, who grew up on a farm in Oregon where he hunted and fished to help feed the family, describes his philosophy this way: "First you must make a living; then you must make a living that is worthwhile."

His unsuccessful effort on behalf of the Owyhee Canyon training range strained his relations with environmentalists, although Pat Ford, a leading Idaho environmentalist, doesn't think that will last. But victory over the military could be short-lived; there's a move in Congress to appropriate money for the bombing runs.

Andrus calls himself a problem solver. Robert Sims, a Boise State University history professor who knows him, agrees.

"He so relishes the public arena, not in a self-serving way," Sims says. "It's like he can hardly wait to tackle the next problem."

Andrus was elevated to the governorship in part on the strength of his fight to stop mining in the heart of the White Cloud Mountains in central Idaho. Out of that effort came the establishment of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in 1972.

As governor, he championed land-use planning, pushing through a state law in 1975. He advocated controlled and moderate growth, even opposing the proposed Pioneer Power Plant near Boise in 1974. He helped to establish the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

These accomplishments led President Jimmy Carter to appoint him interior secretary in 1978, the first cabinet member ever chosen from Idaho. He went, determined to combine the Interior Department with the Forest Service and other resource agencies into one Department of Natural Resources.

On this he failed, says his friend Dick Bennett, a timber man, in part because resource industries like his didn't recognize advantages in it for them. Indecisiveness on the part of the White House also contributed, Andrus believes.

He says, "Here in the West there is example after example in which the administration wouldn't listen to experienced voices or mismanaged a problem, and it turned people off. The inside-the-beltway crowd blew the one real chance they had to get some much-needed rangeland reform. Then they stumbled and fell on their face with mining reform."

Today, Andrus expresses disappointment in Bruce Babbitt. "I overestimated him ... He doesn't have the support of the White House that I had."

Wild Alaska: his greatest legacy

Andrus' greatest national legacy is the Alaska Lands Act, which was signed by Carter in 1980. The wilderness and national park legislation had been on environmentalists' agenda since the 1960s, after the passage of the Wilderness Act. Several attempts were made to push it through, but each was stopped by the powerful Alaska congressional delegation, especially Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.

The deadlock was broken with a classic Andrus power play. In 1978, Andrus convinced Carter to withdraw administratively from multiple use more than 100 million acres of Alaska land. With the stroke of a pen the two set aside far more land than they would ever get in legislation. By doing so, they put the ball in the court of Stevens and wilderness opponents, who would need a bill to override Carter and Andrus' withdrawals.

"It was clear to anybody that if it didn't pass before 1980, Reagan would come in and you wouldn't ever set aside nearly as much wilderness and park lands," says Gaylord Nelson, who was then a U.S. senator from Wisconsin and is now a Wilderness Society counselor.

Andrus worked closely with Rep. Mo Udall, D-Ariz., to finally pass a bill protecting 104.3 million acres, including 12 new parks, 56 million acres of wilderness, 25 wild and scenic rivers and 11 new national wildlife refuges. "You'll never adopt anything like that again," Nelson says.

Andrus also shepherded through a landmark mining reclamation law, a progressive oil leasing program and programs to protect wetlands, wildlife and fish. In Idaho, he withdrew lands along the Snake River for the Birds of Prey Wildlife Refuge. Bills to protect the Gospel Hump and River of No Return wilderness areas were passed with Andrus' support and active lobbying.

"There's no four-year period in the last quarter century that comes close to the conservation accomplishments of those four years," says Ford, former Idaho Conservation League executive director.

Andrus' willingness to ram projects through caused some of his political opponents to consider him a bully. "It's a style I do not support in politics," says Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

One problem dogging Andrus from his first days in the governor's office in 1970 was nuclear waste at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. That year, he learned that the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Energy's predecessor, had haphazardly buried low-level but long-lived nuclear waste at the lab.

Andrus balked at the practice and won a pledge from AEC chairman Dixie Lee Ray that the waste would be removed. That pledge forced federal officials to design and build the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a nuclear waste repository, in Carlsbad, N.M., that is bitterly opposed by many New Mexico residents. When Andrus returned to the governor's chair in 1986, the pilot plant still had not opened and waste continued to pile up at the Idaho lab, shipped from other DOE plants nationwide. In 1988, Andrus and press secretary Marc Johnson toured the Carlsbad waste plant.

Andrus and Johnson were impressed with engineering that would embed the waste in stable salt deposits for thousands of years. Andrus also was convinced, Johnson said, that politics and a lack of leadership would prevent DOE from ever opening the repository.

"On the airplane he looked over at me and said: "I think I'm going to tell the federal government they can't bring any more waste into Idaho," " Johnson recalls (HCN, 2/6/95).

Johnson started rattling off all the reasons he couldn't do it. "He knew all the arguments against it and he also could see five or six steps down the road," Johnson says. "He knew it would get increased leverage for environmental cleanup dollars at (the Idaho lab)."

The next day Johnson and Andrus told Energy Secretary John Herrington that Idaho was off limits to nuclear waste generated by federal agencies all over the country. A few days later Andrus and nuclear waste were on the front page of The New York Times.

The result: Millions of dollars were allocated to the Idaho facility in the late 1980s and early 1990s to satisfy commitments made by DOE to Andrus, who limited the waste Idaho would take. When the issue went to court in 1991, to everyone's surprise, Idaho and Andrus won, forcing the federal government to study alternative sites and to complete a full environmental impact statement of waste storage at the lab. The final EIS is due in April.

Unfortunately for Andrus and Democrats, his intransigent positions and strident rhetoric turned much of eastern Idaho against him. Sen. Craig says it weakened Idaho's position when the state fought to save other programs at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.

He could have been a contender

Andrus' executive skills and success often placed his name on Democratic lists for Senate candidates, cabinet appointments and even vice president. But he came to disdain the political landscape of Washington, and when he left in 1980 he said he would never go back.

Then in 1985, Andrus came to another crossroads. He had left public life to start a lucrative consulting business with several former aides. "I was making more money than I ever made in my life," he says. "But I wasn't having the fun I was having in the political game."

He had lunch with Chris Carlson, a longtime aide who was then working for Kaiser Aluminum. "I tried to convince him to let us put together a plan to run him for president," Carlson says.

Carlson's thinking went like this: Andrus would challenge Sen. Steve Symms, R-Idaho. When he won, he would just keep on running - for the Democratic nomination in 1988. Andrus' television presence was second only to that of Ronald Reagan, according to former Oregon Gov. Tom McCall, Carlson says. He was a good fund-raiser and could appeal to most voters.

"Carlson, you go right square to hell," Andrus said, according to Carlson. "I don't want to be president of the United States; I want to be governor of Idaho."

"I'm convinced today," Carlson says, "if he had had the requisite ambition he would have won."

Rocky Barker reports for the Idaho Falls Post Register.

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