The nonprofit Idaho Conservation League turns 40 this year. Since it was established in 1973, the ICL has played a prominent role in virtually all the state’s important conservation issues.
Its first major triumph was the establishment in 1980 of a 2.3 million-acre River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho, renamed in 1984 in honor of U.S. Sen. Frank Church. A coalition that included the ICL and Idaho hunting and fishing groups successfully lobbied for the largest wilderness area of three different-size proposals.
“When we were founded in 1973, it was all about the state Legislature,” Executive Director Rick Johnson said. “The River of No Return campaign was really when ICL got involved in public lands in a way that has endured.”
Johnson said the organization now focuses about half its efforts on public lands and half on state conservation issues.
But as it reaches middle age, the organization has tempered its attitude. Johnson acknowledged that Idaho has become more politically conservative, and the organization has had to become more creative in finding common ground on conservation issues.
“Politics has gotten more challenging, but we’ve gotten pretty good at demonstrating that conservation can complement Idaho’s conservative values,” he said.
Program Director Justin Hayes pointed out that even though many people have moved to Idaho because they like its small-government, low-taxes political philosophy, they also like to be outdoors.
Johnson said the organization broadened its reach with a more diverse group of people in 2005 during development of U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson’s proposed Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which would create a wilderness in the Boulder and White Clouds mountains north of Ketchum.
“That’s when we started working with the Republican delegation in a much more sophisticated way,” he said. “Previously, we were just trying to get them to do what we wanted.”
But so far, that hasn’t been enough. The bill has been stalled in Congress, and the ICL is now pushing for presidential designation of a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument.
Following is a list of some of ICL’s major accomplishments in central and southern Idaho during its 40-year history:
l 2010—In 2007, the U.S. Geological Survey found unacceptably high levels of mercury in brown trout taken from the supposedly pristine waters of Silver Creek, a nationally famous catch-and-release fishing preserve south of Bellevue. The study confirmed what a lot of people already believed.
“We worked for years to identify sources of mercury, and determined that to be gold mines in Nevada,” Hayes said.
Following a threat by the ICL to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the agency announced nationwide rules to reduce airborne mercury emissions from gold ore processing and production facilities by 73 percent.
“That was a huge success for us,” Hayes said.
l 2009—ICL helped move the Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness bill through Congress. It was the first new wilderness designation for Idaho in 29 years. The designation protected 517,000 acres of wilderness and more than 316 miles of rivers as Wild and Scenic Rivers.
l 2008—Blaine County voters passed a $3.4 million, two-year levy to help protect clean water, wildlife habitat and working farms and ranches in Blaine County. Money is granted from the levy funds based on applications from landowners in partnership with nonprofit conservation organizations such as the Wood River Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy. The conservation organizations contribute half the cost of a conservation easement on approved projects, while levy funds make up the rest.
“We ran the campaign,” said ICL Central Idaho Associate Dani Mazzotta. “We organized interest, we organized support, we raised funds to move the effort forward.”
l 2006—Mercury pollution also played a major role when ICL became part of a diverse coalition to defeat the Sempra coal-fired power plant in the Magic Valley. Sempra had proposed to build a $1.4 billion, 600-megawatt plant in Jerome County. Like all coal-fired plants, it would have released mercury into the air. But in March 2006, Sempra announced a decision to sell its development rights, shortly before the Idaho Legislature voted to approve a two-year moratorium on coal-fired power plants.
Since then, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has enacted rules requiring all mercury-emitting facilities to install the “best available control technology.” Hayes said those rules don’t add so much expense as to prohibit construction of a coal-fired power plant in Idaho, but since the state has no coal mines, it’s probably cheaper to transport the electricity here than to transport the coal here. He also said CO2 controls are becoming more restrictive nationwide than are mercury controls.
l 1990s—The ICL was instrumental in making sure state officials and agencies lived up to the Clean Water Act, a federal law that requires states to monitor water bodies, create cleanup plans and enforce the plans.
“For many years, Idaho was not fulfilling its obligations,” Hayes said.
Through a series of lawsuits, the ICL pushed the state into action.
“That was a big lift for us,” Hayes said. “Idaho was so far behind the curve on that stuff, it took a lot of energy to get the state moving. Now it’s a lot better than it used to be.”
However, he said, Idaho still has major water bodies that still don’t meet the federal standards, especially along the Snake River, the destination of much of the state’s sewage effluent and agricultural runoff. He said canal companies near Twin Falls have done a lot to improve the quality of water entering the Snake there, “but by the time you get to Brownlee Reservoir on the Oregon border, it really is a giant sewer.”
l 1990s—The ICL helped improve the Idaho Forest Practices Act, which applies to state and private land. It requires better timber harvesting practices, such as buffers around streams to reduce siltation and keep water temperature down.
“These things have evolved over time, and we’ve played a big role in that, especially early on,” Hayes said.
l 1980s—ICL pushed for amendments to the Idaho Surface Mining Act, which also applies only to state and private land. The act requires stabilization and reclamation of open-pit mines. Still, Hayes said, there’s work to be done.
He pointed to the Thompson Creek Mine, an open–pit molybdenum mine near Clayton where the Thompson Creek Metals Co. would like to conduct a land swap so that its holdings are on private land instead of federal land.
“We’d like to see the state regulations made stronger so there’s not an incentive for people to go management shopping,” he said.
Birthday party to be held at Carol’s Dollar Lodge
The Idaho Conservation League will celebrate its 40th birthday on Thursday, July 25, at Carol’s Dollar Mountain Lodge in Sun Valley. There will be a hearty array of appetizers and non-alcoholic beverages, as well as a no-host bar. Raffle tickets will be sold for items that include a private flyover of Idaho. Executive Director Rick Johnson will speak and a short film on the organization’s history will be shown.
“It’s set up as a social time for friends to get together and reminisce about what they’ve experienced with ICL,” Central Idaho Associate Dani Mazzotta said.
Tickets are $60 per person or $50 each for two or more, and can be bought now at www.idahoconservation.org.