Editor’s note: This post was authored by Pat Ford. Many years ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.
In 1980, ICL hired a young Montanan, Jim Robbins, for a four-month project. He was to write about the emerging "Sagebrush Rebellion." A few months later one of its backers, James Watt, became Interior Secretary, and the so-called rebellion went national. Watt and crew sought to liquidate public lands by sale, give-away, management takeover, whatever they could get away with. Several of the prominent backers, like Helen Chenoweth, were in Idaho.
In these years, much damage to the public lands and its institutions could have been done. Some was done, most durably in the downward trend of public land budgets. The very worst was stymied by public pressure-and, I see now, by the slow, uneven currents of demographic and economic changes in Idaho and the West.
ICL had a small but useful role in mobilizing Americans to fight back. Doing so in Idaho had some nationwide effect, since Ted Trueblood, of Nampa, was a national leader of the Hell No that was organized. We spread his words as widely as we could, and when Ted was too ill to testify at a U.S. House Interior Committee’s hearing on the attack, chaired by Ohio Congressman John Seiberling, ICL filled his slot.
Jim’s project was not well tethered for its 120 days because the then-executive director didn’t know how to deploy a young writer throwing himself into becoming one for life. Jim nevertheless wrote some good stuff to explain and justify our fight. Then he returned to Montana and became a fine writer. It’s been his living for a long time now.
This came back to me when I read Jim’s new article for Yale Environment 360 on the Trump Administration’s designs for public lands. There are big differences then and now, but I see little difference in the "get as much we can" goals, or in what motivates its backers, which is private financial gain.
It came back again the next day, when before me at the Boise library was Jim’s newest book, The Wonder of Birds. I checked it out and found it enthralling. If you like birds, you will like his book.
And how sweet, when on its last page he ends by telling how birds first hooked him: in Boise, in 1980, when he met Morley Nelson while writing for ICL about the place that, 13 years later, would become the Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area.
Morley was a falconer. He designed the structures that make power lines safe for birds of prey. He was the leading voice for protection of that Snake canyon and rimlands with its unique assemblage of hawks, eagles and owls. In 1980 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was redialing its management toward what the birds needed. Some of the so-called rebels launched a flashy outcry; they wanted to make private farms of those public rimlands where the birds hunt. But the clamor they roused backfired, as it became clear over the next years that most Idahoans were for the birds. In 1993 Congress gave 485,000 acres in the area permanent protection, and in 2009 named it for Morley Nelson.
The BLM’s Mike Kochert took Jim to meet Morley. Morley brought a peregrine on his arm, and released it for some dazzling flying above and around them, before he called it back down again. Anyone who was ever present when Morley flew his raptors will know the power of being so close, watching them fly, watching Morley come alive. From that day came the first article Jim ever sold, to Sierra magazine, and from it has now come his wonderful book about the lives and capacities of birds.