The day that Cecil Andrus died, I was in the White Clouds-beneath Castle Peak and surrounded by the legacy of the man who literally saved the place from becoming an open-pit mine. I walked into the White Clouds well aware that Andrus may not live through my trip, which included what would have been his 86th birthday. Somehow I knew he’d passed as I watched the light move across Idaho’s most majestic mountain. My breath caught awkwardly as I looked at the mountain, and I felt as close to him as I ever have been.
My relationship with Cecil Andrus, while not as long as many, was rich and deeply significant to me. Had he not won the 1970 governor’s race, my first hike into Idaho’s backcountry in 1979 would not have brought Castle Peak so deeply into my awareness, beginning a journey that shaped my life. The first phone call I made after leaving the White House Oval Office for the Boulder-White Clouds bill signing in 2015 was to Gov. Andrus. “We finally got it done," I told him.
With Andrus, we created the Boulder-White Clouds national monument campaign, an effort brought right to the edge. The nearly successful monument campaign compelled Congress and other Idaho interests to finally unite behind Rep. Mike Simpson’s wilderness bill, which had long been our goal before creating the monument effort after so many years of congressional setbacks.
I’ve had two stints working for ICL. My first was as public lands director and ended, in some part, due to a misstep where I was poorly quoted in a news story that made me sound as if this 20-something conservation greenhorn was questioning the newly reelected governor and past Interior secretary’s intentions and values. On the Idaho Statesman front page, no less. Never pitch a slow softball to a pro. They hit them hard. The good news from this stressful (for me) experience was that I had an added incentive for accepting a job with the national staff of the Sierra Club.
I left Idaho and had a miraculous eight years working on public lands for the Pacific Northwest. In that role, I spent as many as 100 days a year in Washington, DC, working the highest levels of government. I met the president and vice president of the United States. I was part of a team that made the spotted owl something you’ve heard of and otherwise had what I describe now as my graduate-level conservation experience before returning to Idaho. I’ve now been running ICL for over 23 years. My misstep with Andrus, interestingly enough, made me step higher and farther, and contributed to all of this growth.
While still with the Sierra Club, I was part of a gathering about salmon in Oregon. Andrus was the keynote speaker, and as attendees gathered lunch plates, I thought I should reintroduce myself. I didn’t think he’d remember me. Wrong. Andrus always remembers. "Rick, sit down over here. I owe you something." As we sat at the table, he lifted the tablecloth, showed off his black polished boot and lightly tapped my shin. "Now we’re even," he said, laughing. And that was that.
The first time I met Gov. Andrus, he asked right away how many members ICL had. At the time it wasn’t many. For a long time, he’d ask the same question every time we met. Anticipating it, I’d answer specifically, but even then I knew he was taking measure of how seriously he needed to take us. Years later, when I had become ICL’s director and he was no longer in the governor’s office, he still asked the same question. "Hang on," I said. I pulled out that morning’s newspaper. One story directly quoted ICL and two others related to our work to protect Idaho’s outdoors. "Governor, we work for everyone who reads these stories. Our work is part of why the paper put them on the front page. We represent everyone who cares about the outdoors…" He cut me off with a wave of his hands, smiling that trademark Andrus smile. "Rick, that’s the first time you answered that question correctly." He never asked it again.
After visits with me to discuss strategy, Andrus sent a letter to President Barack Obama in 2010, thanking him for his 2008 visit to Boise where Andrus introduced him to 14,000 wildly enthusiastic Idahoans. In the letter, he described his support for Simpson’s Boulder-White Clouds bill. But noting Congress’ failure to act, he encouraged Obama to consider a national monument proclamation, which the president alone can do, just as President Jimmy Carter did, with Andrus’s help. This bold strategy got the Alaska delegation moving and ultimately protected 100 million acres of Alaska.
In 2012, Andrus was the keynote speaker at ICL’s Wild Idaho conference at Redfish Lake. With Simpson speaking the very next morning, Andrus forcefully-and publicly-called on ICL to move from Simpson’s legislative strategy to a national monument strategy focused on Obama. As he often repeated to me, "You have an opportunity. Don’t overreach. Get it done."
While never abandoning our partnership with Simpson, ICL would soon help lead a national coalition advocating a national monument-an effort so successful that, in late 2014 when Simpson asked Obama’s senior advisor John Podesta for six months to try to pass his bill before a monument was declared, Podesta was unsure whether he could guarantee that much time. This was a conversation I watched happen.
Through every step, I talked with Gov. Andrus. Along the way, we helped each other. I joined the board of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. He spoke glowingly about ICL in a video for our 40th anniversary. He became the honorary cochair of our successful It’s My ID campaign to raise over $4 million for ICL’s future. He also made ICL a beneficiary in his estate plans.
Over many years, we didn’t agree on everything, but that didn’t matter. On the whole, he was a leader for Idaho and that meant balancing a lot of things.
Many people loved and respected Cecil Andrus. He was an exceptional politician (in the best sense), elected governor four times. Right up until the end, he was a public presence, arguably never retiring. Our last meeting, like so many before, was in the ICL office just a little while ago. We always covered a lot of ground. He told me things about his health that I suspect he kept from others. Over the years, I realized that I’d earned his respect and I’ll honestly say I’m as proud of that as anything I have done in my life.
"I remember Rick when he came to town," Andrus said in the ICL conference room as part of a longer interview I did with him for the Idaho Humanities Council book Idaho Wilderness Considered. "He was in his mid-twenties or so. Long hair. A wild-eyed screaming environmentalist," he said laughing. "Now look at him. The hair is shortened up. Beard is still there but it’s all white! You know what age has done? It’s made him into a realist."
Learning from Cecil Andrus (and Mike Simpson) is what made me a realist.
There is a mountain in Idaho. Castle Peak. "It’s the mountain that made a governor," Andrus would often say. He was the first western governor elected on an environmental issue, stopping a proposed mine that would have erased the mountain, the valley and the heart of the White Clouds. Because he became governor, he became Interior secretary, and that led to protecting over 100 million acres of Alaska. And he did so much more. Education. Nuclear waste. The list is long.
You often see mountain goats on the eastern face of Castle Peak. As the mountain goats look out, you can see their fur flutter in the wind. You can hear the aspens in the breeze and splashing as salmon dance above redds in the East Fork of the Salmon River where they spawn and die. I can sense he’s there, in all of it.
You can go there, too. You should. His legacy is in the White Clouds, waiting for you, forever.