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for people who care about the West

Looking back on Obama


In the dark days of early December, just a month after the election of President-elect Donald Trump, Idaho Conservation League Director Rick Johnson and Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson joined a couple of hundred folks at Boise’s City Club for a nostalgic celebration. They were being lauded for the passage of the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness bill, which they had both worked on for decades and which President Barack Obama had signed the year before.

President Barack Obama speaks at the Copper Mountain Solar 1 facility, in Boulder City, Nevada, in March 2012. At the time, the facility was the largest operating photovoltaic plant in the United States.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Simpson, a Republican, delivered an impassioned talk about the enduring value of public lands and wilderness. “His words could have been my words,” recalls Johnson.

The Boulder-White Clouds bill was one of only a handful of legislative successes during the Obama administration. Facing a stubbornly hostile Congress, our 44th president resorted time and again to his executive powers to move policy forward. For public lands, that often meant using the Antiquities Act to create new national monuments; Obama, in fact, has created more than any president in history. But it was the determination of Simpson and the conservation community to find common ground that ultimately made a legislative solution possible in conservative Idaho.

It’s hard to imagine such bipartisan collaboration now, or in the months ahead. Trump’s picks for his transition team and Cabinet, together with a Republican-controlled Congress, likely mean intense battles over lands, energy development and environmental regulations, not to mention immigration, trade and health care. In addition to very public media scraps, there will be epic fights between Trump appointees and longtime federal bureaucrats. It remains unclear how much of Obama’s legacy will survive. In this issue, we take a look at Obama’s impact on the West, regardless of the future. It’s a way of looking back, before we tackle what lies ahead.

Rick Johnson got his start during the Reagan years, when he signed a Sierra Club petition demanding that Reagan dismiss his evangelically pro-development Interior secretary, James Watt. To him, the election sends a clear signal that the conservation community needs to move rapidly from offense to defense. It’s a familiar transition for many longtime activists, yet the current level of anxiety is unprecedented.

Executive Director and Publisher Paul Larmer

“It’s like you are on a river trip camped at a beach, and you can hear, but not see, the massive rapids below,” Johnson says. His advice to colleagues: “If you spend all your time imagining the rocks, then that’s exactly where you’ll end up tomorrow.” Instead, he recommends, get a good night’s sleep. Then tackle the rapids by defending the common values that unite Westerners — clean water, clean air, public lands.

And, I would add, look for opportunities to forge unexpected alliances. There will be a lot of different boats navigating the churning waters ahead, and you never know who will end up in the river. Carrying extra oars and life jackets makes sense.