BOISE — They blazed new trails, helped wildlife thrive, ushered in protected wilderness and created new ways to experience Idaho’s backcountry. Now a flood of prominent outdoorsmen are retiring, leaving a legacy of conservation and a framework that their successors are eager to build on.
The longtime outdoors advocates are part of the generation born of the environmental shift that gripped the U.S. decades ago.
“We’re kind of that post-Earth Day, vaguely ‘60s, vaguely ‘70s era,” said Rick Johnson, director of the Idaho Conservation League.
Johnson plans to retire in June. By that time, other wilderness and wildlife retirees in the past year will include:
- Leo Hennessy, non-motorized trails coordinator for Idaho Parks and Rec. and creator of the Idaho City yurt system
- Tim Breuer, executive director of Land Trust of the Treasure Valley and first orchestrator of the Ridge to Rivers trail system
- Virgil Moore, director of Idaho Department of Fish and Game
- Ed Cannady, manager of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (though his planned retirement at the end of February might be delayed by the federal government shutdown)
Craig Gehrke, director of the Idaho chapter of the Wilderness Society, also plans to retire soon, and rumors abound of other conservation leaders who are considering retirement in the near future.
“There’s this whole cadre of people that have been here since the very beginning,” Johnson said. “We actually do believe we can change the world, and I think we have.”
A legacy of collaboration
Across the outgoing cohort’s variety of accomplishments, one element has proven to be a constant thread: their ability to work together and forge a culture of collaboration.
“You have to have great people skills [in this business],” said John Freemuth, chairman of the Andrus Center for Public Policy, which focuses on environmental and public land issues. “That’s been the great transition over the last 20, 30 years.”
You can see it in Idaho Conservation League’s push for establishing the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness, which required the backing of Republican Rep. Mike Simpson and various other wilderness organizations. Ridge to Rivers, the Boise trail system established in the 1990s with Breuer’s help, is a mishmash of federal, county and city agencies. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game made great progress protecting species like the sage grouse and Yellowstone cutthroat trout as it welcomed more stakeholders to table.
Former Idaho Statesman outdoors editor Pete Zimowsky watched many of those achievements unfold in the years he spent reporting on wildlife and outdoor recreation. Not only did the outdoors leaders learn to work well with one another, he said — they also brought the public into the fold.
“Their generation of rallying volunteers and getting a strong community behind them was a big accomplishment,” Zimowsky said.
Though the retiring generation largely drove the focus on teamwork, Johnson was humble about their role in bringing disparate parties together.
“I think everybody has always cared about the outdoors in Idaho,” Johnson said. “We’re just better at talking to each other, all the different interests.”
Making sure ‘everything is tied down’
Brad Smith knows it’s easy for people to be nervous about change. But the Idaho Conservation League’s North Idaho director is confident that the major shift in outdoors leadership will be a fairly smooth one.
“A lot of the leaders now moving into retirement were instrumental in bringing people to the table,” Smith told the Statesman in a phone interview. “But new leaders can carry on and improve upon that.”
“Transition has an element of turbulence,” agreed Johnson, Smith’s supervisor. “But, to reference a rafting term, it’s my job to make sure everything is tied down.”
Smith and Johnson’s organization is one that Freemuth, of the Andrus Center, lauded for its emphasis on passing along institutional wisdom.
Also of note, Freemuth said, is Idaho Fish and Game’s legacy of long careers and leaders, like incoming director Ed Schriever, who have spent decades at the agency.
It’s that kind of overlap and mentoring that will see the past decades’ collaborations thrive.
“The network will live on as people come and go — hopefully, if they maintain the relationship parts,” Freemuth said. “I’d be surprised if these guys retire and things just die.”
Big issues on the line for a new generation
Former Idaho Statesman outdoors reporter Steve Steubner knows just about everyone who’s spent significant time in the Treasure Valley’s outdoor recreation scene. He said he’s seeing plenty of new faces when he gathers with conservation and rec. groups.
“Fresh blood is there,” Steubner said. “The younger generation is key in all this stuff. [In the ‘80s] if I was up on the Boise Ridge on my bike and I ran into somebody, I knew who they were. And now it’s grown into this beautiful thing that’s hundreds of thousands of people.”
Steubner and Freemuth can point to plenty of men and women they suspect are up-and-comers in organizations like the Bureau of Land Management, the Idaho Department of Lands, the Wilderness Society and more.
Regardless of who’s next in line to lead, it’s clear they’ll have a lot to tackle. In addition to maintaining the bonds their predecessors forged, Idaho’s new generation of outdoors advocates will have to address big issues around public land, climate change and the urbanization of the state, to name a few.
“I want to ensure that we’re communicating with the public, local communities and landowners who have property adjacent to endowment lands,” said Dustin Miller, the recently appointed director of the Idaho Department of Lands.
Smith anticipates acting on pivotal issues like salmon and steelhead runs. He and Johnson agree that younger generations will be up to the challenge.
“We have a culture of growing leaders, and that can be [people] in their 20s, 30s, 40s and up,” Johnson said. “As transitions inevitably happen, they happen because people move up or they move out.”
As he prepares to “move out,” Johnson is reminded of something a logger said to him years ago, a quote he believes is relevant for his generation and the next.
“I know you can make a point,” the logger told him. “I’ll be watching to see if you make a difference.”