An Interview with Rocky Barker

Rocky Barker is an author and the environmental reporter for The Idaho Statesman newspaper. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2010.

Rocky Barker

Bruce Reichert: Has our concept of wilderness changed in the past 40 years?
Rocky Barker: Wilderness today I think holds much the same appeal to a lot of people that it did 40 years ago. The difference I think is that we know so many more things than we knew then, there are so many more things in our life – gadgets. Everything changes around it. For myself, I've come to realize that wilderness itself is really a human construct; the big 'W' wilderness we're protecting really grows out of our yearnings for wild places, for solace, for solitude.

What has changed is that we now have put a federal designated guideline on what wilderness is. We've put boundaries on wilderness. We manage wilderness. The whole idea of managing wilderness in and of itself is an oxymoron to many people. We don't realize that wilderness is a state of mind as much as it is the places that we love and cherish. And as our world keeps getting larger, it is going to become infinitely more valuable.

It is hard for us in Idaho to understand that because we have so much – not just quote big 'W' wilderness but we've got 9 million acres of road less federal forest. We've got pretty close to that of wild places in the desert range lands. A lot of our state lands have wilderness areas on it, if you don't think about legal designations. I'm not saying those legal designations aren't important. They are, but it is that concept, that connection with nature that is unfettered by our human development that is the most powerful in this whole thing.

BR: Do you think the younger generation appreciates wilderness?
RB: I think there are young people who do appreciate the wilderness. I bump into them when I go into places like the Frank and in the Sawtooths. I'm more concerned with people, with kids who just don't get a chance to get outside at all in life. I'm a big believer that parents have been scared into not allowing their children to explore nature on their own, as children, the way that we got to when I was a kid.

Now, I grew up on a farm, but my parents in the summer basically let me run like a wolf, and I had to check in for lunch, my mom called with a bugle and I came from the little creek that I fished. I learned. My wilderness values came from my grandparents, my parents and my own sense of exploration. I think it is very important that we pass that on to another generation. Those are values that kids have to get themselves. We can steer them, we can show them, but that is something you get. I don't think you can get it from a joy stick, and I don't think you can see it on a screen. I think you have to get out in the dirt, so to speak. And my kids, I raised them that way and they still all love the outdoors.

Signing the Owyhee Canyonlands InitiativeBR: When you look at the leaders in Idaho today dealing with wilderness issues, is it similar to when, say, Frank Church, dealt with wilderness issues?
RB: I do see a lot of continuity there. They are politicians in a different time and different pressures and different incentives. Frank Church had to worry about getting re-elected because of his stand on wilderness. I think Mike Simpson today faces the same issue when the Republican Party puts on its own platform that it is against his bill. So there is some continuity there, but Frank Church also had an entire party behind him backing him when he was going to the floor of the US Senate and arguing for wilderness. Crapo and Simpson don't have that. Now they are fighting their own kind of political structure, and to a certain degree right now this whole anti-government mentality. Wilderness is yet another restriction; if it is a government restriction they don't like it.

And there are quite a few folks who think the state could do a better job of managing these federal lands.
Is the state going to pay for all the forest fire fighting? That is a lot of money, and the state already pays a lot of money for fire fighting. Imagine if it had to carry the whole burden. Because they are national lands, there are people who recognize that we all have to pay for that.

Look at what has happened with state lands and particularly state parks. We've had to cut back our recreation funding. I'm not arguing whether we should or shouldn't, but the state doesn't have the resources. I've lived in states who have set aside wild areas. I think states can manage wilderness. Wisconsin is the one I'm thinking about. I think Idaho could do a good job of protecting wilderness, but it doesn't at this point see how it fits into that.

What we often want in Idaho is to have complete control, but have the federal government pay for everything, and I don't think that works. These are, after all, national lands. They are our lands, and the wilderness is a national value that I think we in Idaho share. Right now, I don't even hear Sandra Mitchell saying that we should go backwards and get rid of the wilderness we have. That is important. That is really what Frank Church can say he got. Wilderness value in Idaho is now a shared value by most Idahoans. It is just 'how much?' now – and a 'how much' issue is always, there are always different levels.

BR: Were you surprised at the effort involved to make the Owyhee Initiative with its wilderness a reality?
RB: I think it tells you a lot about how hard people were willing to work to do this. I also think the Owyhee story tells you how much easier it is when you sit down and go area by area and talk to the people directly involved and try and work through it. I think the Owyhee showed that the ranchers recognized very early that their interest and the wilderness folks' interest were pretty close to the same. They don't want a whole lot of people running around down there. That gets in the way of their cattle operation, and they can live with their cattle operation with wilderness. I think a lot of wilderness can be done that way.

In the end, it took Crapo's leadership to put it over the top, and he had to take on a couple of tough people, namely Senator Craig, and get them - Governor Otter - to at least let him do it.

I think whether the Boulder White Clouds is finished really gets down to whether the four people in congress are willing to take that same kind of position for what they want to do. It takes leadership, it takes some political capital, it takes guts. Wilderness is not going to be an easy thing to do in Idaho ever – because Idahoans like to make those decisions themselves. But the Owyhee's tells us that we can do it if we sit down together, educate ourselves together about each other's concerns. And I thought that was the most important thing about the Owyhee's process. When you actually sit down on a table and talk about it rather than argue across the air waves, it is a little harder to simply demonize your opponent.

BR: With the Boulder White Clouds proposal, it seems that maybe the motorized groups have learned a few things from the environmental groups, about coming in at the last moment and blocking the process.
RB: I think it is true to say that when the motorized folks said 'No' so many times and expressed their opposition to any more compromise, and actually didn't stand up for some of the things that Congressman Simpson put in the bill for them, when he then had to compromise again, he didn't fight perhaps as hard for some of the language that was in there, because they didn't seem to care.

Moonrise and sunset over Castle and Merriam Peaks, White Clouds Mts., Sawtooth National Recreation Area, IdahoI think they have a case to say that some of that surprised them at the end, but I also think they made it very clear that nothing that Simpson could do was going to get them to come out in favor of this.

Again, I don't think anybody should be surprised with Sandra Mitchell's positions and so then she did this series of ads; these are not new, and she's not coming in at the last minute. It is just that she went state-wide. She has been running ads like this in Challis in Custer County for the last five years basically, trying to undercut Simpson's local support for this, and she was unsuccessful in doing that. Custer County stands resolute with Simpson and Rick Johnson and Craig Gehrke who they don't particularly like because they do think, when you put this bill up, they come out ahead. And what is lost in this last minute thing is that two-way street and how the motorized people kind of gave a wink and a nod early on to,because Simpson did in fact throw in all of the major trails they wanted to protect except one.

I think that Simpson really went as far as he thought he could do to get everybody that he could on board who wanted to make a deal. But I think the motorized people made a conscious decision to just simply oppose this and to stand against all wilderness, and they may end up winning with that.

BR: If they win, what is lost?
RB: That's a good question. If you listen to Rick Johnson, it is going to make it very hard for him to continue in these kinds of negotiations for wilderness such as Crapo has in the Clearwater, such as folks up north want to do for Scotchman's Peak. They are similar efforts. Frankly, there are similar efforts ready to go all over the state, but if this, dies those efforts die with it.

Will Johnson give up trying to get wilderness? No. I think then we will see us go back to a perhaps more traditional route, and I think that will be probably a little more rancorous.

The Boulder White Clouds effort as much as the Owyhee's really changed the behavior of the environmental community in Idaho, and I think that is lost on a lot of people. They sit down now with the powers that be and work on trying to fix things rather than to fight things.

And there are people in the funding world, in the foundation world, who are going to watch this and say, they've got to decide now whether they give their money to John Marvel and the Western Watershed Project, or do they give their money to the Idaho Conservation League? They are going to evaluate whether they are going to get more by going to court or by sitting down and trying to collaborate. I think there are people on both sides of this issue who would love to see that kind of a situation set up, because it helps people on the extremes on both sides.

BR: It seems that the Owyhee and Boulder-White Clouds proposals have given some of these conservation groups a mantel of respectability now that maybe they didn't have before.
RB: I also understand the success that the Idaho Conservation League and others have had beyond wilderness by their new approach. They are players in Idaho and they are moving forward. They have positive economic agendas for Idaho. They are working with a company that wants to put a fertilizer plant in down by American Falls. They helped convince the Sierra Club that the carbon sequestration system this company is committing itself to is worth not fighting it, and having them move forward and write very strict rules. This could end up actually bringing jobs to Idaho, and I think there are going to be a lot more things like that.

That's one of the places where environmentalism has moved away from the old black and white wilderness/non-wilderness paradigm that the Wilderness Act was written in. There's still a place for wilderness in that paradigm, but it is much harder to simply be on one side or the other now.

Because of climate change, we are all in this together, and we're all going to have to make painful, tough decisions if we are to get, not just the wild places we care about, but indeed the human race through the bottle neck that this climate change presents.

And I think that the wilderness arguments that we have in Idaho are a precursor to where I think the whole of society will be in the next generation.

Owyhee Big Jacks CreekBR: Arguing for more wilderness does not seem to be for the weak of heart! It is a real interesting dance you have to do.
RB: Wilderness is a tough place to be. That is kind of what makes it wilderness. If it is too easy, you don't need to go back to it. That has been what human society has been doing with the earth ever since they started with trying to make our existence easier. Wilderness is that hard place, that place that tests us, and protecting that hard place, that also lovely, exquisite, beautiful place, it can't be easy either.

BR: Looking at this whole thing from 30,000 feet, any words of wisdom for those who are debating this on both sides?
RB: I think people on both sides of this issue need to step back and think about the Idaho – not just the Idaho they are in today, but the Idaho they are going to see 20 and 30 years from now. 100 years from now. All of these issues get down to – what are we going to have today and what are we going to leave for our grandchildren?

I personally think that when you take that step back, you look at issues differently. I've ridden with many of them in the past to see what their experience is, and it is a great family experience. I'm sure they want to pass that experience down to their children.

I think they also need to understand that there are people who want to have that experience without motorcycles in the background, and I think we can set for all time protection of access and protection of wilderness, and I think those should be the ways we should look at this issue. Those are the kinds of things Simpson envisioned in his original bill. Some of that had to get washed out in language, but I do think that the motorized people, instead of simply fighting wilderness, would do better to try to find some other places that they can insure access for their great grandchildren as well as themselves.

There are going to be conflicts, obviously, where two people want the same thing. That's what the White Clouds and Boulder is all about. Both groups love the area, but there are also some places that have much higher value to the motorized people than to the wilderness people.

I'll give you one. Over in eastern Idaho is Mount Jefferson. I have ridden through this area on horseback. It is a gorgeous place in the Centennial Mountains, that on the Montana side is absolutely wilderness that everybody would love for hiking, for horseback riding, for wilderness values, good fishing, hunting.

On the Idaho side it is also beautiful, but it also has what snowmobilers consider one of the best places to do high mountain snowmobiling, and I have done that with them, and I can tell you it is one of the hardest trips you will ever take in the wilderness, to take a snowmobile up to the high country. But it is a value they love and Mount Jefferson is perhaps their most important place still open left in eastern Idaho, and I think they can make a good argument for keeping it that way.

BR: You've been covering wilderness debates for quite a few years now.
RB: I think that we in Idaho take wilderness for granted. I think we don't realize just how lucky we are and how big it is. We just have so much of it and we're lucky and that makes it hard for us to understand that in the world in general it is disappearing fast.

When I started covering wilderness in the mid-1980s, there was a large percentage of the state that totally opposed wilderness still. They thought the whole idea of the wilderness value was wrong. There still are those views today. I think our governor shares those views. But it is now a minority, and I think people realize and recognize that there is value to that big open space that we've protected.