Show the Way, Make a Decision: A Keynote Address on Guiding and Conservation in Idaho by Rick Johnson

Rick Johnson, the Executive Director of the Idaho Conservation League, addressed a group of over 30 guides and Idaho river professionals during the 4th Annual Idaho River Rendezvous in Stanley Idaho last weekend. Rick has been a tireless conservation professional in Idaho for over twenty years. Rick has helped grow the size, impact, and credibility of the Idaho Conservation League and has helped reshape the practice of conservation in Idaho and beyond.  He is recognized leader in conservation strategy and organizational development and has worked across party lines to help pass Idaho's last two wilderness bills in the Boulder White Clouds and Owyhees. You can contact Rick or the Idaho Conservation League here.

Rick's political standing is his own. Here at Redside we resonated with his ability to communicate the way guides can care for their backcountry "offices" and engage with Idaho as a state.

Rick's keynote address is reprinted below.

Photos by Jenni Chaffin & Aaron Beck

Jenni Chaffin

Jenni Chaffin

I thought I’d start with something from a book I keep in my drybox. It’s the beginning of a poem by Jim Harrison, from "Theory and Practice of Rivers".

The rivers of my life: moving looms of light, anchored beneath the log at night I can see the moon up through the water

as shattered milk, the nudge
of fishes, belly and back
in turn grating against log
and bottom; and letting go, the current lifts me up and out

into the dark, gathering morning, drifting into an eddy
with a sideways swirl,
the sandbar cooler than the air: to speak it clearly,

how the water goes
is how the earth is shaped.

I often get introduced as representing Idaho’s leading voice for conservation. There is truth to that. But as a look around the room, I think of who you are.

You are staff for one of the most important conservation voices in the nation.

You are interpreters, bringing sense to the language of the river.
You are ambassadors of the wilderness for the United Nations.
You’re a magician, able to take piles of gear and inflated rubber, and make that into a tight, safe and sound boat.
You are a shaman: you bring life to the scenery.
You bring intimacy to the great expanse.
You bring comfort and warmth.
You are a chef, firing up the stove and making sense of the coolers.
You are a storyteller, around a fire, on sites occupied by people for millennia.
You are a weaver, threading a line over Velvet, over and through Ladle, over Salmon Falls.
You are a coach and help bring competence to people visiting the outdoors.

You are a guide. You are a guide. Think about the word.

As a noun, guide has two definitions: You show the way. And you help someone make a decision.

Aaron Beck

Aaron Beck


The first one is easy. Of course you show the way. But in doing all the things you do as part of that process, you also inform a thought process, and guide an experience to a logical conclusion.

A conclusion that wild rivers matter.
That clean water matters.
That public land matters. That this is what makes Idaho, Idaho. This is what makes America, America
Under a blanket of stars, fire sparks rising up into the infinity, with the soundtrack of the flowing river, you help lead people to a conclusion that all this matters.
That wilderness matters. That Idaho matters.

The Idaho Conservation League was founded on that theme over 40 years ago. To keep Idaho, Idaho.

I’ve been a guide too. I’m confident in the wilderness. It is that confidence and competence in the wildest parts of Idaho that got me into this work. I love the Idaho Wilderness.

But where I’ve been a guide is in the scariest wilderness of all: Washington, DC.

But before I was a guide, perhaps like you, I was in water over my head. I was swimming through rapids. I was energized by the idealism of the naïve and the energy of the clueless. Kind of like some private trips I’ve passed by...

Back then I was a volunteer. I carried a stack of large photographs and I was trying to talk to Congress about Idaho wilderness. I was in my early 20s.

We all have our epiphanies, these moments of life where you say to yourself: this is it. Sometimes you know it in the moment, a little god light comes down from the sky. Chamber music. Or maybe some Bob Marley. But in those singular moments you know you are in the right place and that this moment, this very moment, is going to matter forever.

Jenni Chaffin

Jenni Chaffin

It was on one of those first trips to DC, not unlike seeing my first grizzly or my first wild salmon, that I had my epiphany.

It was after a week in Washington, DC, where after 5 days wearing my feet raw, I sat in a conference room in the Sierra Club’s old office on Pennsylvania Ave. I was in the Alaska Room. Tim Mahoney threw me a beer. Tim ran the Sierra Club’s public lands program.

Do you remember that first beer given to you by a professional you admire? Nothing tastes better.

I was in the very room that three short years before, amazing things had happened. This was the room where the coalition met to create and pass the Alaska Lands Act. Idaho’s own Cecil Andrus steered much of this process, as Secretary of the Interior, and Tim told me stories of those meetings, just a couple years before.

This was also the room, in far-off DC, where the conservation community gathered to pass the bill to protect the Middle Fork and Main Salmon, where the River of No Return bill was strategized, organized and then passed. Frank Church steered that process, and again, one of Idaho’s own.

Those two bills both passed in the same year. 1980. Amazing accomplishments, and led by Idaho leaders, Idaho conservationists who loved the rivers where you all work, who helped save the rivers you all work.

Hearing those stories, being in that room, drinking what became more beers... That’s when I really learned that conservation could be a vocation, a job, a career. That was my epiphany. I knew right then my life was changed. I had found my work.

In the last summer of the 1970s I took my first walk in the White Cloud Mountains. Into the 80’s I spent countless nights in the Boulder and White Cloud Mountain Ranges. I was part of a 10-day ski traverse in 1985. The pictures of that trip are funny today. Leather boots, Rottefella bindings with a Volee plate and rag wool socks.

Back then all across Idaho the talk was about wilderness. There were wilderness bills all across the West. In 1984 there were bills in every Western state. But nothing passed in Idaho. Nothing passed for two reasons: Frank Church was gone, and our team had gotten too extreme, certainly too extreme for the conservative politics that came forward in the Reagan era.

After that epiphany in Washington DC, I managed to work my way into a job with the Idaho Conservation League. But not long after, I got another job, with the Sierra Club. It was then, as a professional, that I became skilled at what I do. I learned to read the water rather than focus on the rocks, how to ship my oars when things got tight and how to bring along others.

Conservation is an art. Just like what you do, what I do is a craft, practiced over time. You learn this work, like any other, by learning from others, by watching, and by getting wet.

Telly Evans Memorial, Jenni Chaffin

Telly Evans Memorial, Jenni Chaffin

21 years ago I came back to Idaho. Wilderness work had, for all practical purposes, died out. Politics had become more extreme and polarized—on both sides—and this was particularly true in Idaho. And it was my job to start making conservation progress again.

When you’re on a river, you don’t get to look at a wave train or set of boulders and wish it was different. You have to deal with it. That’s the same for me. In politics, you can hope it was better, or you deal with what you’ve got.

I wanted to protect the White Clouds and to do so we began working with Rep. Mike Simpson, a conservative Republican from Idaho. We met many times. I took him on a flight right out of here, in Stanley, over those mountains. I introduced him to places and to people.

We began to craft a path forward. This was 15 years ago. It was a path based on compromise. Everyone had to give a little. This wasn’t easy in an era where no one speaks of compromise any more. Simpson said many times, if we succeeded at this the two of us would so anger our bases that we’d both need new jobs.

So I’m trying to save wilderness and I’m working with a Republican. Some thought this crazy. I knew I had to meet Bethine Church, Frank Church’s widow. She was both an inspirational conservationist, she was also a powerful Democrat. I was sure she’d be mad. We talked a long time, first over iced tea, and then with something stronger.

“I have only one thing to say to you,” she said, leaning forward with those steady warm eyes. “I’m disappointed it took so long to figure this out.”

We created a compromise based on collaboration. We bridged the divide between the right and the left, and as a wilderness movement we met in the center. But we’d entered one of the most dysfunctional and polarized periods in Congressional history. The center, there was no one else there.

Simpson introduced 10 versions of his bill over 15 years. First, we were stopped by the left. Then, we were stopped by the right. Over and over we tried, one legislative strategy after another.

A couple years ago I got a call from Cecil Andrus. Cecil was elected governor four times. He was Secretary of Interior for Jimmy Carter, and was the architect for the Alaska Lands Act, which protected over 100 million acres of Alaska parks and wilderness, the greatest wilderness bill of all time. Andrus had helped many times in our work with Simpson. He’d provided advice and opened a few doors. But this time he said, Congress has failed. We’ve tried everything, and while we both have the highest respect for Simpson, it’s time to use the tool we used in Alaska. It’s time to use the Antiquities Act.

And so we moved away from Congress and created a National Monument campaign. This was very controversial. A monument can be created by presidential proclamation, and this president is not too popular in Idaho.

For two years we built that campaign. How a bunch of Idaho folks created one of the most high-profile monument campaigns in the nation is it’s own story. We did a very good job. We’d created a very serious national effort.

Obama has designated 22 monuments so far. I think he’ll soon do another in Maine. President Barack Obama has now created more national monuments than any president in American history.

Last year we knew one of two things would happen. Either we’d successfully create a national monument, or we’d create sufficient new pressure here in Idaho to get interest groups who’d opposed Simpson to regroup, and help us pass Simpson’s wilderness bill.

Few believed either would work. I knew one would and so did Mike Simpson. Simpson knew the time was now, and we had to throw everything at it. He wanted to pass his wilderness bill, to be sure, but he supported our effort to create leverage and if he failed, to create the monument. And it worked.

On a Thursday in late July, after 15 years, Rep. Simpson’s bill passed the US House without a single objection.

On the following Tuesday, it passed the US Senate.

And then on Wednesday, I got a call from the White House inviting me to the bill signing.I flew to Washington, DC, on Thursday, one week after it had passed the House, and Friday, with Mike Simpson was in the West Wing of the White House. As we prepared to walk into the Oval Office, I asked Mike Simpson what he thought. So much work, suddenly drawing to close.

“You know, it’s not real yet,” he told me, “It’s all happened so fast.”

A few moments later President Barack Obama opened the door to the Oval Office and invited the group in. And Simpson told me, “It’s getting more real now.”

Next weekend, a short way from here at Redfish Lake, we’ll have our annual conference. Rep. Simpson will be there. I hear he’s bringing champagne.

Let’s bring this back around. Back to you. Back to the river. Back to you being a guide.

Jenni Chaffin

Jenni Chaffin

Make sure to tell the stories. Wilderness is protected by real people who busted their ass to get these things done. Regular Idaho people. The Selway was designated in 1964, and people like Doris Milner and Mort Brigham made it so. Frank Church carried that bill, as part of the original wilderness act in 1964. Imagine the original wilderness act, which created the strongest level of protection our nation has, was carried through the Senate by a politician from Idaho.

In 1968, Frank Church carried the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act through Congress.

In 1980, he passed the bill to protect the Middle Fork and Main. Frank Church’s name is on this wilderness because he carried that one over the line. Cecil Andrus was in on that one too as Sec of Interior. But it was saved because of citizens, regular people, like Ernie Day, Ted Trueblood, Nelle Tobias, and so many more.

These are special places. Sacred places. Special people saved them. And today, many of them are gone. Now you carry their spirit, you and now are the guides. You kindle the fire, rekindle the fire, it’s up to you to know and share the spirit.

Howard Zahniser helped write the original Wilderness Act. He wrote it in iambic pentameter to ensure it flowed as it should, not like a law, but like literature.

“We are engaged in an effort,” he wrote, “that may well be expected to continue until its right consummation, by our successors if it need be. Working to preserve in perpetuity is a great inspiration. We are not fighting progress we are making it. We are not fighting a rear guard action, we are facing a frontier. We are not slowing down a force that inevitably will destroy all wilderness there is. We are generating another force, never to be wholly spent, that, renewed generation after generation, will always be effective in preserving wilderness. We are not fighting progress. We are making it. We are not dealing with a vanishing wilderness. We are working for a wilderness forever.”

There is a mine proposed up Big Creek above the Middle Fork. There are others upstream from the Main Salmon. Even more crazy, there are serious proposals in Idaho for our public lands, lands held in trust for all Americans, to be handed over to the state, much of which would be sold.

Climate Change. A leading climate thinker says that climate will impact the next generation--that would be yours--more than the internet has impacted mine. In the face of climate change, our wilderness is some of the most resilient habitat on planet earth. Scientists call it a ‘climate shield.’ We have some of the highest elevation salmon habitat on the planet, the most resilient.

And about those salmon in the river. What more amazing story is that? Salmon, born in Idaho, who travel all the way to the ocean, life a full life, and then swim all the way back. All the way back to Idaho. To spawn and to die. Those big trees, ever wonder how those big ponderosas grow so tall on the Middle Fork? Growing so tall from sand? The nutrients brought in from the sea by the life cycle of salmon.

You may be guiding the last American citizens who could see wild salmon in the Salmon River. These are all stories to tell.

You are a guide. You are a guide, not just showing the way, but helping guide your people to conclusions. That wilderness matters. That people can do great things.

Frank Church took President Jimmy Carter down the Middle Fork. You don’t know who is on your trips. It may be a kid who’ll row rivers. It may be someone who saves them. Make the most of it. Step up. Be an evangelist for wilderness and for the spirit that draws you to the river, and to me to helping save those rivers.

Wallace Stegner, a great writer, called where we are, the American West, the “native home of hope.” He also said we’d know we’d succeeded when we “create a society to match the scenery.”

Together we love these places.
Together we will float the wild rivers.
Guides interpret the songs of the river, the language of pines.
Anybody can go there. It takes special people to keep us there.
To keep us there.
To keep the rivers alive.
To keep what’s out there in here, in our hearts. This is the work of guides. You and me.

I always walk into a room and look around, trying to sense what matters to the group. Today, I read something on one of your arms, a tattoo. It said, “20 years from now you’ll be more disappointed by what you didn’t do than by what you did.”

Go big. Reach our into the wild heart of Idaho and share it. Interpret it. Love it, shape it, and give that to your guests. Change their lives. It’s how we make our lives worth living.