Voices from the river

Voices from the River: Idaho mourns its favorite son

“I remain hopeful that I will be able to pass on to my grandchildren all the pleasures of life in an unspoiled West. Perhaps hope should be replaced by a stronger word. It is a matter of obligation.”

— Cecil Andrus

By Chris Hunt

I first met Cecil Andrus in the early 2000s at an Andrus Center for Public Policy event in Boise. I was mid-level editor at the Idaho State Journal with a serious interest in environmental politics and fish on the brain. I’d been working on a feature series on native cutthroat trout of the West and the decline in occupied habitat for the Journal.

I went to this event in hopes of talking to Andrus about public lands and the not-so-coincidental reality that the remaining habitable landscapes for wild and native trout in the West closely mirrored the lines drawn on the map that delineated public lands from private. At the time, Andrus was almost mythical in my eyes. A former governor and the former secretary of the Interior under President Carter, he was a voice in the dark for common-sense approaches to environmental issues in the West for a generation.

A moderate Democrat who carved out perhaps the most successful political existence in Idaho’s history, Andrus was a master at dealmaking and compromise. He artfully navigated red-state politics, and, unlike many of today’s high-level politicians, he was pragmatic, not dogmatic. He could view issues through a lens that most politicians today simply don’t possess—he could put party and politics aside and genuinely work on a human solution. It’s a lost art, and I fear we may never see it put to use again.

Andrus died on Thursday after a bout with lung cancer, just day shy of his 86th birthday. Idahoans from every political persuasion today mourn their favorite son.

But his lessons are still there to study, not the least of which is his uncanny ability to engage all comers, listen to all sides of a debate and artfully annunciate positions on any number of issues without alienating people.

At this same event, another of Andrus’ political generation, Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, shared the dais with the event’s namesake. I sharply remember the dialog between these two western statesmen who came from different places on the political spectrum, yet often met in the middle to compromise and move forward.

“We’ve lost the ability to disagree without being disagreeable,” Simpson said, and Andrus echoed.

Indeed, one look at Twitter on any given morning, and that statement is proven true over and over again. Our politics are a wasteland where dogma overpowers the greater good with enough regularity to turn any reasonable human being’s stomach. It may be that good people eschew politics today because it is simply a distasteful endeavor where the debate begins in the mud with the pigs and rapidly degenerates from there. I’m sure there were times when Andrus had to get muddy, but I am confident that he never started a debate with dirty shoes.

And, to bring it back to the fish, I did get to have that quick discussion with the former governor and secretary. As has proven true, Andrus was prophetic, explaining to me that one of the biggest mistakes being made at the federal level at that time (remember, this was 15 years ago or so), was the financial abandonment of the agencies that manage our public lands. He predicted, rightly so, that doing so would not only result in immediate changes on the ground in the West, but also in public sentiment—it would, he explained, add fuel to anti-government rhetoric about how “the feds just can’t do anything right.”

Today, as Andrus predicted, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management can barely keep the lights on thanks to ever-shrinking funding and out of control fire-fighting costs, let alone maintain roads and trails or recreational facilities. And that anti-government, anti-federal sentiment has blossomed into a full-fledged effort to strip Americans of their public lands, in part because “the feds just can’t do anything right.”

A few years later, after I started working for Trout Unlimited, Andrus helped us with a statewide newspaper ad on the need to protect Idaho’s roadless lands from unnecessary incursions and needless development. I’m convinced that his voice, which he selflessly loaned to our campaign, helped us craft an Idaho-specific roadless rule that will manage our state’s backcountry using values all Idahoans can appreciate.

And that means that the roadless headwaters of our great rivers will always be home to those native cutthroats I wrote about all those years ago, as well as the redbands, the steelhead, the salmon and the bull trout that call our pristine wild waters home.

Wild country where wild things roam and swim. That’s Cecil Andrus’ legacy. That’s what Idaho is all about.

Chris Hunt is the director of digital content for Trout Media. He lives and works in Idaho Falls.

By Chris Hunt.