Turning red hearts green

Photo by Kathleen Whitson.

Last August, Congress permanently protected more than 275,000 acres of spectacular wilderness known as the Boulder-White Clouds. Our foundation, like many others, celebrated this amazing achievement for both its ecological and political significance. As President Obama signed the bill into law, he noted that congressional approval of a wilderness bill without a single "no" vote was remarkable, and congratulated those who had made such a feat possible.

Our foundation has been investing in the Boulder-White Clouds since 1995, the year we opened our doors. So for us, and our grantees, this was a very, very big deal.

Much has been written about the long and unlikely path to this victory. It would not have happened without the steadfast commitment of U.S. Representative Mike Simpson, the Idaho Republican who had led the campaign in Congress for well over a decade. Simpson's unlikely alliance with the Idaho Conservation League's executive director Rick Johnson makes it a truly a remarkable tale. Well worth reading for those who are unfamiliar.

In early June our foundation's board and advisors traveled to Boise to learn about conservation politics in this "reddest" of red states. We wanted to understand the impact of our past investments and the prospects for solidifying conservation gains before we close our doors in 2020. So we sat down with the mayor, city council members, state legislators, political consultants, conservation leaders and former Governor Cecil Andrus. We asked them to talk to us about how Idaho is changing, and to help us understand how conservation advocates can make progress in such a politically conservative place.

As we discussed the political landscape, several people mentioned the 2001 ballot measure to protect the Boise Foothills from development. Voters approved the measure by 60 percent, letting politicians know they were willing to pay higher taxes in order to have access to public lands near their homes. The implications of this were not lost on David Bieter, who was serving as a state legislator at the time. He referenced the Foothills vote as the "watershed event" that set the stage for a new generation of conservation champions in Idaho.

Bieter is now serving his fourth term as Mayor of Boise. He is determined to make Boise the most livable city in the country. Under his leadership, the city is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building an underground transit center in the heart of downtown, and measuring its progress on a comprehensive livability index. When we walked around downtown Boise we saw all of the features that make a city attractive to the next generation of creative tech workers and entrepreneurs. There is a greenbelt of walking and bike paths along the beautiful Boise River, interesting places to gather, plenty of craft breweries, cafes, and performance venues. And the voters of Boise love their Foothills so much that last year's levy to invest another $10 million passed by a whopping 74 percent.

The story of the Foothills campaign was not entirely new to us, since we have been long-time funders of the organizations that led the effort in both 2001 and 2015. What was surprising was the way the story kept coming up in our conversations and the fact that its impact continued to be felt today, more than 15 years later.

I can still remember the day ICL's Rick Johnson, came to the Brainerd office and told us he was interested in a campaign to protect the Foothills. And I remember our initial reaction, which was less than enthusiastic. Our foundation's priority was to invest in big remote places with significant ecological values, like the Boulder-White Clouds. Johnson explained that his organization, which had been focused primarily on protecting untouched landscapes, needed to do some work in its own backyard. And doing this would help them build relationships and make bigger things possible. He was right. And it took a trip to Boise 15 years later to fully realize the impact of that campaign.

After our board meeting, several of us took a hike through the Boise Foothills. We were led by Lauren McLean, the campaign manager of the 2001 ballot initiative, who is now a City Councilmember. I spent some time that afternoon reflecting on people met, conversations we had, and what I learned about making progress in a place like Idaho.

It's about people

If our foundation has learned one thing in the past two decades it's that leaders matter. Idaho voters have elected some truly thoughtful, passionate, and effective conservation leaders. Governor Cecil Andrus, Representative Mike Simpson, and Mayor Dave Bieter are three that stand out in this story, and there are many others. We were reminded that elected officials are only as bold as their constituents allow. Idaho has some savvy conservation advocates who understand how to help elected leaders exercise their political muscle to achieve important things.

It's about patience

Foundations are often criticized for expecting results on unrealistic timelines. It is heartening to know that our foundation stuck with this cause for two full decades, and humbling to realize that advocates began their work two decades before we showed up. This is hard work. We all need to be patient, flexible, and jubilant when progress is made.

Progress isn't always linear

Everyone wants big wins, and most policy advocates realize that progress comes through incremental gains. But we don't always connect the dots between something we do today and what it might lead to a decade or two later. Few people would draw a line between the Boise Foothills campaign and Boulder-White Clouds wilderness designation, but I would. For advocates, developing relationships and establishing trust are the building blocks to achieving meaningful conservation gains.

Some "red" hearts are actually green

Boise is a green city in a very red state. Republicans will most certainly outnumber democrats for the foreseeable future. But that doesn't mean it isn't possible to achieve protection of the state's air, land, and water. Reflecting on her work to protect public and private land, a republican aide to Representative Mike Simpson commented "this work has turned my red heart green."