Dying of cancer in 1984, Sen. Frank Church wanted to talk about the wilderness.
The Idaho Democrat, who served 24 years in Congress, didn’t want to talk about his work in foreign affairs, cleaning up the Central Intelligence Agency or his opposition to the Vietnam War.
“We spent a couple hours sitting at his bedside,” said Doug Scott, a longtime environmental lobbyist and close friend to Church. “He wanted to talk about his legacy. He knew his legacy was the wilderness.”
And what a legacy.
Spearheaded by Church, an ardent group of conservationists caught lightning in a bottle in the 1950s and early ’60s, creating a law that protected large swaths of wilderness during a time when grazing, logging and mining were king. They argued, cajoled and ultimately compromised to protect wilderness with the simple idea that the world — and its people — were better off by preserving our connection to our wild past.
Today, 4 percent of Idaho is wilderness. At 4.5 million acres, Idaho’s total acreage is second only to California in the lower 48. All total, 109,511,038 acres in the U.S. and Puerto Rico are protected as wilderness.
Then controversial, most Idahoans today cherish the wilderness areas.
“It was very remarkable, because the economy … back then was even more dependent on natural resources: logging, mining, livestock grazing,” said Craig Gehrke, regional director of the Wilderness Society’s Idaho office. “To buck that trend back then was pretty darn amazing.”
The idea to set aside untamed land started back in the ’20s and ’30s with Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold. Both U.S. Forest Service employees and avid outdoorsmen, they fought to establish “primitive” areas, a designation similar to wilderness. In the ’30s, for example, 2.1 million acres of Idaho was declared primitive.
But after World War II, the Forest Service went into “payback mode,” said Dennis Baird, a former University of Idaho professor and longtime conservationist. The idea was to provide veterans with cheap lumber to build houses.
“As a consequence, the notion that we could afford to set aside some places began to dwindle in the Forest Service,” Baird said.
Protection, he said, was replaced with an ethic of “let’s build roads everywhere, let’s log every last acre.”
During the next 10 years, outdoorsmen saw their beloved primitive areas tainted by roads, logging and mining. Primitive designation was great in theory, but the law was so weak the Forest Service changed boundaries with little or no warning.
Bert Bowler, son of Boise conservationist Bruce Bowler, said his father and other Idaho conservationists, such as Ernie Day and Ted Trueblood, saw development putting their pastime of hunting and fishing in peril.
“It was so easy then to start seeing the development going on: building dams, dredge mining and all those kinds of things,” Bert Bowler said. “Just spoiling the environment. They started to see they were losing their opportunity.”
The conservationists agreed wilderness protection needed more teeth.
Howard Zahniser of Pennsylvania picked up the charge.
Zahniser, as executive director for Wilderness Society and a longtime conservationist, started writing the first drafts of the bill by hand in 1956. After 20 years in the trenches, he felt having Congress designate the boundaries on wilderness was the only way to protect the land from industry.
Church, a newly elected senator, didn’t take a position at first.
The young senator, who quickly earned the nickname “boy wonder” for his eloquence during debate, saw both sides on conservation issues. His willingness to make concessions is evidenced by his support of Dworshak Dam, which was built on the North Fork of the Clearwater River in 1966.
Bethine Church, Frank’s wife, published a book in 2003; “A Lifelong Affair: My Passion for People and Politics.” In it, she detailed her husband’s work to make Dworshak a reality and its importance to getting him re-elected to the Senate in 1962, a feat no other Idaho Democrat has accomplished. He was elected four times in all.
Around the same time, Sen. Clinton Anderson of Arizona was set to be the floor sponsor of the bill to protect wilderness. But the night before the debate, he had to have gall bladder surgery. Anderson asked Church to be his replacement, which was the push Church needed to become the champion of one of the most impactful environmental movements in the nation’s history.
Anderson picked Church because he was a western Democrat, a pragmatist and enjoyed the outdoors.
“Talk about the right guy at the right time,” Gehrke said. “It wouldn’t have happened without Frank Church. He was a western guy. He was a statesman, he wasn’t a politician. He knew how to get things done. He balanced environmental leanings with the need for some development.”
Church was able to sit with both camps, hear their arguments and craft solutions that fit everybody.
“He came in as a classic cold warrior in 1956 when he entered the Senate,” said Rod Gramer, a former reporter and co-author of “Fighting the Odds: The Life of Senator Frank Church.” “He had a very traditional approach to environmental issues. He was in favor of dams, but he had this incredible ability to mature and grow and change his mind in office. He grew as a statesman on those issues.”
Church, who often advocated for industry in Idaho, was a far cry from the conservationists he worked with on wilderness designation. But he enjoyed the backcountry and understood it was in jeopardy, said Larry LaRocco, Church’s former north Idaho field representative. More importantly, he saw the way to balance conservation and industry to designate wilderness lands the vast majority of Idahoans would support 50 years later.
But at the time, some saw Church’s path as political suicide.
Chase Clark, a former Idaho Falls mayor and Idaho governor, was Church’s father-in-law. At one point, Clark took the liberty of telling Church he was gaining enemies.
“His father-in-law called him and said ‘Frank, you’re out of your goddammed mind. You do this and get identified with this Wilderness Act and you’re toast,’” Scott said. “Church said, ‘I can defend this law to anyone in Idaho. I know it backward and forward, and it’s not going to hurt anyone.’”
Zahniser died in 1964, only months before the act was signed into law on Sept. 3 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. With Zahniser’s passing, Church, as the bill’s floor sponsor, became the new face of the Wilderness Act.
Once the act passed, there was a huge sigh of relief for Church and the conservationists. But the work was far from over.
“It was a combination of enormous elation, congratulations and achievement with a realistic view that there was a long, hard job remaining to be done,” Scott said.
The passage of the act was an eight-year slog. Church and others spent an additional 16 hard-fought years working to designate Hells Canyon, Gospel-Hump, the Sawtooths and River of No Return. Each designation required a separate and unique battle both locally and in Congress.
Hells Canyon was the first major battleground.
The border of Idaho and Oregon, carved out by the Snake River, is the deepest canyon in North America.
It also was coveted by power companies.
By 1967, Idaho Power Company already built three dams on the river. Two more dams, the Nez Perce and High Mountain Sheep, were proposed near the confluence of the Snake and Salmon rivers. The dams were expected to have catastrophic consequences for the spawning of salmon and steelhead.
The decision for the High Mountain Sheep Dam went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bruce Bowler argued the case.
The court struck down the dam proposal with Justice William O. Douglas writing the majority decision: “The importance of salmon and steelhead in our outdoor life as well as in commerce is so great that there certainly comes a time when their destruction might necessitate a halt in so-called ‘improvement’ or ‘development’ of waterways. The destruction of anadromous fish in our western waterways is so notorious that we cannot believe that Congress through the present Act authorized their ultimate demise.”
Bert Bowler said dinner conversations frequently revolved around his father’s efforts to protect wilderness lands.
“Protecting those fish was heavy on his mind,” Bert Bowler said.
In 1975, with the help of conservationists such as Jerry Jayne, of Idaho Falls, and Bruce Bowler, the Hells Canyon Wilderness was created, protecting 218,019 acres and the fish so commonly associated with Idaho.
While working to designate the Gospel-Hump Wilderness, southeast of Grangeville in the Nez Perce National Forest, Church’s ability to find middle ground was essential. Timber companies were eyeing the area and local residents wanted nothing to do with wilderness and its protectionist rules.
“It was a very difficult wilderness debate,” Gramer said.
Church enjoyed the process.
While working with Church to designate Gospel-Hump, LaRocco recalled a stakeholder trip into the mountains where Church made his case.
“Someone asked him, ‘Senator, where did you get these cigars?’ He said, ‘Castro gave them to me.’ So there we were, drinking whiskey with our horses there, sleeping on the ground and smoking Cuban cigars,” LaRocco said. “It just brought everything together for me: Here you are with the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in a wilderness area using his legislative skills.”
As always, tensions ran high.
“The local John Birch (Society) folks had Church hanging in effigy on a flatbed truck outside of the Elks Club,” LaRocco said.
Eventually, Church invited environmentalists, as well as members of the Grangeville Chamber of Commerce and the Forest Service, to a motel room to work out a compromise under the pretense he would take their decision to the Senate.
“And the first night, he was literally down on his knees, smoking a cigar, going over the maps with the interest groups,” Gramer said.
Three months later, the group emerged from the room with a bill proposal they all liked, which Church took to the Senate. The bill yielded 205,769 acres of wilderness land in 1978.
The River of No Return Wilderness is the crown jewel for many Idaho sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts. Designated in 1980, it holds 2.366 million acres of nearly untouched land.
Baird said the issue didn’t center around natural resources, such as Hell’s Canyon or the Gospel-Hump.
It was bigger.
“It was a fight of vision,” Baird said. “The vision of a large wilderness that was ecologically sound and big enough to leave places where animals never met people and never knew about them and where you couldn’t see the other side even if you were up on a mountain. It was kind of a different one. The River of No Return was a very special fight. It was about seeing the really big picture in conservation.”
Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus was U.S. Secretary of the Interior at the time. Andrus was influential in creating the largest unbroken wilderness in the contiguous United States.
Andrus grew up hunting and fishing, something that bonded him with many of the influential conservationists of the time, whom he called the “hook-and-bullet boys.” Before the designation, the River of No Return was established as the Idaho Primitive Area and encompassed 1.4 million acres.
Andrus yearned to expand the area to 1.89 million acres, but felt the task was foolhardy.
“I knew that the wood choppers and some other people would call me a wild-eyed, tree-hugging, posy-sniffing, and so and so, and that I had gone crazy,” he said.
So, he hatched a scheme that involved his close friends — Trueblood, Day and Bruce Bowler. He asked them to propose protecting 2.37 million acres, figuring his original figure would look more appetizing in the end.
Andrus thought he was being clever until his friends came back, adamant about their 2.37 million acre proposal, which eventually passed in Congress.
While Day, Trueblood and Bruce Bowler were front and center in the fight for designation, once it moved to the political arena, it was all Church.
“Church was centrally engaged,” Scott said. “It was Church who chose what bill was going to be introduced and who advocated for it.”
Gramer and Johnson both credit the drive Church showed in his 24 years in the Senate to the early bout with cancer. In 1948, when Church was attending law school at Stanford University, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
“He came a breath close to death; and Bethine, almost by pure will, nursed him back to health,” Gramer said. “They decided then that life was very precious and short, and that they might not have a lot of time.”
They were right, as Church again was struck by cancer. On his death bed in 1984, Church learned that the king of the Idaho wilderness — the beloved River of No Return that took 16 years of hard fighting to designate — would bear his name.
The bill to change the name was sponsored by Republican Idaho Sen. Jim McClure.
McClure, though a friend of Church’s, often fought against him politically and was a foe of the bill Church chose on the River of No Return.
In 1984, the wilderness was renamed the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
“He knew that it was being done. I think it meant a lot to him,” LaRocco said. “I think it meant a tremendous amount to him. I don’t know if he realized it would be known as ‘The Frank,’ but having your name on it, I think it was very special to him. It was a capstone on a great career.”
Fifty years later, the controversy over Idaho’s wild heart has passed and the state’s identity has been augmented by the wild lands. Hikers, fishers, hunters and wildlife lovers around the state have Church to thank, Gramer said.
“His fingerprints are all over that map,” Gramer said, pointing to a map of Idaho. “I would argue that none of that would have happened without Frank Church.”
Reporter Aubrey Wieber can be reached at 542-6755.