Jack Hemingway’s environmental legacy in Idaho touched many of its wildest, most pristine and most scenic places.
As an avid fly fisherman, outdoorsman, conservationist and Idaho Fish and Game commissioner, Hemingway stepped out from the long shadow of his famous family name and was instrumental in preserving Silver Creek and creating the state’s catch-and-release rule.
Upon Hemingway’s death in 2000, newspaper obituary writers recounted those accomplishments and other exploits that defy belief.
While parachuting into German-occupied France in World War II, Hemingway brought his fishing rod along. He was wounded in combat and captured by the Germans, but rejected a doctor’s recommendation that they amputate his right arm—because he couldn’t cast without it.
But all those accounts left out one of Hemingway’s jobs worth noting: newspaper columnist.
While researching the creation of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area this week, I discovered Hemingway’s columns for the Sawtooth Mountain Star, a monthly newspaper based in Ketchum in the 1960s and ’70s.
One paragraph struck me, which Hemingway wrote for the February 1970 edition. At that point, a wave of conservationist fervor was building that would carry Cecil Andrus into the governor’s office that fall, thanks to his opposition to a proposed open-pit mine at the base of Castle Peak in the White Cloud Mountains.
The movement wasn’t limited to Idaho. The first Earth Day was held in April 1970, and the expanded Clean Air Act was enacted in December. The Environmental Protection Agency was created in the same month. The enactment of the Clean Water Act followed in 1972, and so did the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The SNRA was created by congressional action in 1972.
At the outset of such a heady decade, Hemingway’s evaluation of the environmental movement’s potential was unabashedly optimistic and idealistic.
“It has the advantage of having captured the imagination of the young, and they won’t let it go,” he wrote. “As an issue, it will have the power to cause complete revolutions in our attitudes and in our whole approach to life. The worth of our mountains, our clear skies and of our snow will then be without limit.”
As a concept, the worth of our mountains was fundamental to the SNRA’s creation. It also required new means of appraisal. The traditional means saw only the $1 billion worth of mineral deposits in the region, board feet of timber or grazing acreage.
The SNRA forced us to reconsider. We should treasure the salmon that run 900 miles from the ocean to Redfish Lake as they have for thousands of years, while keeping the broad meadows, forests and mountain peaks free of human touch.
Looking through the lens of history and weighing the calamitous environmental consequences we face, I consider that momentous period in the early 1970s to be a masterpiece left unfinished.
The SNRA stands out like an ornate, haunting spire atop a half-done cathedral when you think of the rest of the salmon’s journey from the Sawtooths to the sea. We have degraded the river systems those fish rely on and still cling to old ideas and means of appraisal when considering how to save them.
And thus, Hemingway’s words still resonate.
“The strong urge to develop all natural resources for today’s dollar is blind to the greater need for an un-despoiled environment for tomorrow,” he wrote.