An Environmentalist And A Governor On The Political Scene

January 22, 1994|By Paul West | Paul West,Staff Writer

BOISE, Idaho -- If they ever build a Hall of Fame for environmentalists, Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus would be a shoo-in.

He pioneered the Green era in modern politics in 1970, not long after the initial Earth Day, by becoming the first governor elected on an environmental ticket. He was a national hero to conservationists as interior secretary during Jimmy Carter's presidency, when the national park system doubled in size and the amount of protected wilderness tripled.

But these days Mr. Andrus finds himself on the other side in a nasty dispute that, on a small scale, raises the same question bedeviling the Clinton administration over such issues as timber cutting in the Pacific Northwest:

Are there limits to conservation when economic development is at stake?

Certainly, few American politicians are better suited to navigating the perilous path between protecting ecosystems and preserving jobs than "Cece" Andrus.

A popular Democrat in a predominantly Republican state, he rose to the governor's office by opposing a plan to mine the White Clouds mountains. Mr. Andrus argued then that a sound environment and a growing economy could exist side-by-side.

Twenty-three years later, as he begins the final year of his fourth -- and, he says, last -- term as governor, he would seem to have proved his point.

This booming state on the western slope of the Rockies led the nation in job growth in 1992. Tourism is the state's third-leading industry, and the Snake River valley is fast becoming one of the country's leading high-tech centers.

The promise of low crime rates, relatively cheap housing, breathtaking scenery and abundant outdoor recreation -- local boosters like to say that you can play golf in the morning and go skiing the same afternoon -- have lured urban refugees from both coasts.

They made Idaho the second-fastest growing state in the nation last year, although with 1.1 million people scattered across an area larger than New England, there is room to grow.

Presiding over it all, as Sportsman-in-Chief, is the governor, who once worked as a lumberjack before entering politics.

"I have participated in some of the destruction that I abhor now," says Mr. Andrus, 62, who looks as if he still could take down a Ponderosa pine without working up a sweat.

For years, the governor has been battling the federal government over its plans to store nuclear waste in Idaho.

He succeeded in keeping large, coal-burning power plants out of the state when they were the rage elsewhere in the Rockies. And he hasn't been afraid to take on the National Rifle Association, which he once termed "the gun nuts of the world," even though Idaho has the second-highest percentage of hunters of any state.

"I'm a practicing environmentalist," Mr. Andrus explains in an interview in his sprawling, marble-columned statehouse office, where a gold-plated rifle and a personal computer are both on display.

"I'm not a dreamer with a flower in my teeth," he continues. "I'm out there with a fly rod in my hands. I've got a little Brittany bird dog that's just super with hunting quail and chukar and pheasants. And I hunt elk and I ride horses in the backcountry."

All of this makes many fellow Idahoans wonder why Mr. Andrus is so stubbornly pushing an Air Force plan to put a 25,000-acre training range in a pristine desert canyon land in the southwestern corner of the state, especially now that the Cold War has ended and the need for new military facilities seems remote.

"We feel betrayed," says Nancy Westcott, a Boise housewife, in one of the milder comments one is likely to hear from opponents of the training range.

Mr. Andrus insists that, without the proposed range, the Air Force is likely to eliminate its nearby air base at Mountain Home, Idaho, when the next round of base closings begins in 1995.

That, he adds, would mean a loss of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars to Idaho's economy.

"It's our state's largest employer. So we've got to have a training range," Mr. Andrus says. He maintains that damage to the land will be minimal.

Environmentalists contend that the range, which would be "bombed" with non-explosive flares, dummy ordnance and aluminum chaff, would restrict hunting and recreation over a large area, threaten a large herd of Bighorn sheep, and possibly damage archaeological sites that include Indian ruins and petroglyphs.

They also point out that an existing bombing range is only 20 minutes flying time away, in northern Utah.

For months, the controversy has been the talk of the capital city of Boise, a town of 150,000 that sits at the foot of snow-capped hills. There have been TV and radio commercials, billboards protesting the range, and heavy coverage on local television and in the newspaper.

Environmental leaders, mindful of the governor's past record of achievement, speak more in sorrow than in anger of his determination to see the range created.

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