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Erica Jensen Interview

Erica JensenErica Jensen wrote her university Masters thesis on the controversy leading up to the creation of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. It was entitled "Hysterical Preservationists and Gouge-and-Run Bulldozer Boys: The Land Use Controversy in Idaho's White Cloud Mountains." Bruce Reichert conducted this interview in the summer of 2012.

A backpack trip into the Sawtooths led to your thesis?
It did. I was really interested in an area that could tell a story that really intersected politics and policy and land use; and I don't think you could find a better story than Castle Peak in the 1960s and '70s. It's just such an interesting mix of where federal land management was going, where state politics were going, and the rising recreation and tourism industry.

And what did you come away with?
I think what I came away with from that project was… it came full circle. Here I was researching Idaho in another state and part of that was great because I was able to delve into archives; and you can learn about a place in an interesting way from books and newspaper articles and really doing the research. But what was neat was when I went and saw Castle Peak at the end of my thesis. It just all came back to "place" — and you realize that's why it's so powerful to so many people, because it is such an incredible place, and you can't get that unless you're there.

People are so connected that it brings out a certain passion that I think is hard to account for, if you were writing the story the way you thought it would go. So it really made me appreciate the nuances and the fact that big decisions still come down to people and places and individual understanding of places. It's not a text book version. It's a thing that is influenced by place, and you can't really separate it from the landscape itself.

"I think the passion around this issue was really remarkable — from all the different sides. People really cared about what happened here, so much so that the rest of the nation started caring, too."Were there some individuals who really intrigued you during your research?
If I could go back in history and meet someone, Frank Church would definitely be at the top of the list. I think he did amazing things for the state and for our land and natural resources, both he and Andrus.

You start reading letters from these people, and you feel like you are inserted into the world in a very personal way; and I think that was the most rewarding aspect of doing this research. You read these letters that Frank Church was writing to his constituents or his close allies he was working with on this project; it almost feels like you shouldn't be there. You feel like you are inserting yourself into this other time and this other place. Forty years after the fact, you feel like you've been let into their inner circle, and that was a neat feeling.

Ernie Day would definitely be one that I would love to sit down and have a conversation with. You realize the personal work that these people put into this, and it just makes you appreciate it so much more, because they are investing their hearts and their souls — at the expense of other things — into doing this. That really was a gift for all Idahoans, and I just respect that more than I can possibly say.

Wasn't this one of the classic environmental issues that led to the election of a governor?
It was. It was a really big deal in Andrus' election, and I think one of the media outlets was quoted as saying this really propelled him to be the first governor that was elected on an environmental platform. To me, I didn't expect to find that here in Idaho. That wasn't what I set out to look for, and it was interesting that such a national movement really was front and center here in Idaho.

It was kind of the perfect storm of the way things came together in Idaho with it being an election year, the way the tensions had been there festering for really decades. It was an interesting story to find that really here in Idaho we were at the heart of the environmental movement.

U.S. Senator Frank Church was an outdoorsman.  [Credit: Burns Studio]How big was this issue in Idaho and the nation?
It was one of the most talked about issues by the late 1960's in Idaho. What really did a lot to propel Idaho into the national spotlight was this 1970 article in Life Magazine. And it took these peaks that were far away from Boise, far away from a lot of population centers, and it made them a national issue.

There were people who were writing from New York, from across the country, who all of a sudden felt invested in this place; and I think it is because they could relate to similar landscapes near their home town. It brought this issue front and center to the nation, that we had to decide what was the best use for these landscapes. Who was going to manage them? And how do we deal with those competing interests that were all vying to manage these really special areas? So the 1970 article did a lot to really put this in a national spotlight.

Any surprises?
I think the biggest surprise was that I couldn't predict what people were going to do. Even when people thought everyone was on-board for a national park and a recreation area complex — which had been a recent development that had just been passed in Washington — everything pointed to that being the endgame at that point.

That's the interesting part of doing history — you don't get all the pieces; so there are chunks in the middle where something changed; and you have to piece those together. But you don't get to know exactly what happened behind closed doors and the conversations that were going on with re-elections. And all of a sudden it's off the table, and it's definitely just a national recreation area.

The same thing with the bill coming through Congress, and there being thoughts that certain protections were going to be removed from the bill as it made its way through the conference committee. I think people would have put money on that at that point. You don't know until it's done, and there are always surprises — and whether that's because of elections or because of pressure from the public, there's really no way to tell exactly what is going to happen. And I think that's what makes a story like this an interesting one, because it is nuanced. It is a nuanced story of people and places and how they relate to the land there.

Mining marker in the shadow of Castle Peak [Credit: Bruce Reichert]What does this story tell us about Idaho?
I think it definitely tells the rest of the world how much Idaho cares for its landscapes. People are passionate about Idaho, and I haven't met many Idahoans who wouldn't agree with that. People are here because we love the landscape here. We love the opportunities it affords; we love the peace; we love that we can drive five minutes or two hours, depending on where you are, and you can feel like you are alone in the world. And I think that matters a lot to Idahoans.

And I think the passion around this issue was really remarkable — from all the different sides. People really cared about what happened here, so much so that the rest of the nation started caring, too. I think that would be surprising at first that this was such a big issue for the time, because it's not like the world was without other problems at the time. But this mattered. This mattered to Idahoans.

I was struck by how they found a solution that worked for Idaho. They really did; and when I come up here 35 or 40 years after the fact, I can't imagine this place being any different than it is now. And I think that if it had been a national park, it could have gone differently. We've all been to national parks where maybe we felt a little more like we were at Disneyland than in the great outdoors. And I think that what people appreciate about this area is the wilderness, is being part of the land, feeling like you are out here alone in the heart of Idaho. That could have turned out differently.

Any hopes for the future of this place?
I hope that Idahoans just continue to care. I don't think that's an issue. I think people are passionate about their landscapes. I hope that my kids will come up here and enjoy it the way I have. I hope that the land management continues to really look at the whole landscape, with people as a part of that, and that this continues to be really a source of pride for Idahoans the way it is today.