BOISE — Former Republican U.S. Rep. Orval Hansen represented Idaho’s 2nd District for just six years beginning in 1969.
But they were six key years — shaping the future of this state’s nuclear research laboratory, preserving a key section of Idaho’s public lands and including the resignation of a president. Hansen leaves behind a sizeable Idaho legacy through that service and his other work in law, public policy and advocacy.
Hansen, 91, died Thursday evening, surrounded by his family in his Boise home.
He was a critical supporter of what in the 1960s was known as the National Reactor Testing Station in eastern Idaho. Hansen convinced then-Atomic Energy Commission Chairwoman Dixie Lee Ray to change the name to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, pushed for increased funding that together elevated the site to the level of Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Lawrence-Livermore and others. Today it is simply the Idaho National Laboratory.
“Congressman Hansen’s vision allowed for eventual creation of the nation’s lead nuclear energy research and development laboratory,” said Mark Peters, INL director. “INL’s status as a world leader in clean energy R&D and critical infrastructure protection can be traced back to Orval Hansen’s successful efforts more than four decades ago.”
Services will be announced soon, his family said.
Hansen was part of a bipartisan team of Idaho lawmakers in the 1960s and ’70s — also including Democratic Sen. Frank Church — who may have differed on some philosophical issues but made a point of cooperating on the big problems of the day. Their model was one that even in the early 1990s was already being viewed as an ideal that Idaho and the nation had lost.
The group’s achievements included the law creating the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, a unique compromise that preserved the Sawtooth and Stanley valleys from development.
“There was rapport in those days,” Hansen told the Statesman in 1992. “Everybody loved (former Sen.) Len Jordan. I had known Frank, and (then-Rep.) Jim McClure and I were in college together. Those personal relationships helped smooth over any differences.”
His time in Congress also included the last days of the Nixon administration. In 2006, after the death of former President Gerald Ford, Hansen recalled arranging a 1974 trip for Ford to speak at the renaming of the INEL. The pair then planned to drive up to the World’s Fair in Spokane, Wash., even taking the time to test their route in a dry run. “The next day, (President Richard) Nixon resigned, and Ford was the president,” Hansen told the Statesman. “So that was all off.”
Born in Firth in August 1926, Hansen graduated the Idaho Falls public school system and served in the Navy from 1944-46, according to his official congressional bio. He also was in the Air Force Reserve, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
Hansen attended the University of Idaho, receiving a bachelor’s degree in speech in 1950, according to the university. Over time he also earned law and political science degrees from George Washington University and studied abroad at the London School of Economics.
Hansen met and married the former June Duncan, an actress from Southport, England, while studying in South Africa in 1955. They have seven children.
He served four terms in the Idaho House and one in the Idaho Senate before he was elected to Congress. He initiated legislation to create the Idaho Legislative Council and was appointed as one of its first members. He championed a successful change from biennial to annual legislative sessions. He worked closely with Republican Gov. Robert Smilie to form the Idaho State Parks department and dramatically improve funding for public education.
Around his political career, he worked as a lawyer in Idaho and Washington, D.C., and served on several nonprofit boards, including for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. During his time in Congress, he also played a key role in early campaign finance reform.
Hansen lost the 1974 Republican primary to George Hansen (no relation). After leaving Congress, he moved to the D.C. area to join a law firm that lobbied Congress and the executive branch on behalf of companies ranging from Morrison Knudsen and Boise Cascade to Westinghouse and General Atomics.
In 1979, Hansen expanded a public survey business he created into the Columbia Institute for Political Research, which organized 250 policy and economic conferences in all 50 states over the next 25 years. These conferences attracted elected officials, CEOS of some the largest companies, economists, scientists and even world leaders like the late Shimon Peres, former prime minister for Israel. Topics included health care, energy, democracy and other wide-ranging issues. The institute closed in 2000.
In 1997, he joined with Bethine Church, Frank Church’s widow; McClure; and Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus to found the Sawtooth Society. The nonprofit was created to help preserve remaining unprotected areas around the SNRA through scenic easements.
His family has been extensively involved in politics, including brothers M. Reed Hansen and John Hansen, who both served in the Legislature. His son, Jim Hansen, also spent time as a state senator, challenged U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson in 2006, was executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party and now serves on the Ada County Highway District board.
In 1993 Hansen helped direct a conference on the future of the INEL, at that point facing defense spending cutbacks and at the center of arguments over federal nuclear waste brought into the state to be stored there.
He was on the University of Idaho Foundation Board in the early 2000s when the University Place scandal occurred, and was among the foundation directors sued by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden in the wake of it. Investigators concluded the foundation in 2001 and 2003 “likely” breached its duty under state law when it directed $18 million in U of I’s Consolidated Investment Trust (CIT) to the foundation-sponsored University Place campus development in Downtown Boise.
Hansen eventually moved to Boise. He wrote several letters and guest opinions for the Statesman in recent years, touching on term limits, public lands and current Rep. Mike Simpson’s “Hike with Mike” fitness initiative.
Just last year, Hansen published his memoirs, “Climb the Mountains,” focused on his love for mountain climbing around the world, his marathon running into his 70s, and other accomplishments. He also wrote “Congressional Operations: The Role of Mail in Decision Making in Congress,” in 1987 with Ellen Miller.