David Langhorst doesn't have a ranger's hat, but he sure would like one. He thinks it would look pretty swell hanging in his new office at the headquarters of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, where he'll take over as director on Monday, Aug. 4.
"But I want to earn that hat," he told Boise Weekly, smiling.
When he was a boy--he thinks it was in the third or fourth grade--Langhorst gravitated to a man in the ranger's hat on his school's career day.
"I desperately wanted to be a park ranger," he recalled. "It's surreal to consider that."
And now, he's the man in charge of Idaho's parks. It's been quite a journey for that boy from Minnesota, who made his way through Alabama, Texas and Washington before settling in Idaho. He's been a machinist in a bottle factory, a history teacher at an all-black high school in the deep South ("I'm very proud of those years"), a salesman in Seattle and art gallery manager in Sun Valley. And that's just for starters; in some of his high-profile assignments, he was also the executive director of the Wolf Education and Research Center, a representative in both the Idaho House and Senate, and a commissioner at the Idaho Tax Commission.
So you can imagine how wide-ranging our conversation was with the 55-year-old grandfather of two ("They like to call me Papa"), who is counting down the days to his latest job, where he'll spend as much time in the outdoors as he will behind a desk.
"When it comes to hunting and fishing and camping and hiking, I'm as avid as anyone I know," he said. "It's the longest and strongest thread in my life."
I think it's fair to say that you were at the forefront of the planning and execution of the reintroduction of wolves to Idaho in 1995. Did you have a sense of history in the moment?
I knew what that meant then and what it means now. One of my operating tenets was to be a responsible citizen of the Northwest. I wanted to earn my place here. We have to learn how to figure out to live with one another and with the landscape.
Are there things that you know now that you wish you knew then?
There were some wolf advocates who kind of went back on their word.
What does that mean?
When it got to the point when the wolf population had recovered, then it was time for management, they said, "No, you can't do that." That bothers me. It threatens reasonable conservation efforts.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but you've always maintained that a hunt is at, or near, the top of a wolf management plan.
That's true for most wildlife. It's the most manageable way of controlling wildlife population. There are people who have seized on the fact that I was involved in wolf recovery, but I also co-sponsored a bill to reinstitute Idaho's control and management of wolves. I've tried to be in the reasonable middle.
Were you always a Democrat?
I was a Reagan Republican. I was a social libertarian and economic conservative.
You have to acknowledge that from the moment someone declares his or her candidacy for public office, they're tagged politically. And if someone were to Google you, they would see the words "Boise Democrat" attached to your name.
It's hard for me to say that's unfair, but it also makes it easy to pigeonhole someone.
What prompted you to first run for the Idaho Legislature?
Two things: I watched Idaho sportsmen go to the Legislature to ask for better poaching laws and those sportsmen were treated so inappropriately by lawmakers. That was 2002. At the same time I was watching Idaho teachers march on the Statehouse. That's what caused me to run for office.
You're about to step aside from a prime spot on the state Tax Commission, so let's talk taxes. Can you speak to how much Idaho leaves on the table each year in tax breaks?
There are about 150 tax exemptions in Idaho; the number goes up every year.
How much money are we talking about?
$1.75 billion was the last estimate I saw.
But it's perplexing that we continue to acknowledge all of that lost revenue every year, yet Idaho lawmakers won't do anything about it. Where's the political will on this?
There's really no constituency pushing for it.
And if we were to look at candidates' campaign donor lists, wouldn't that inform us about some of the pressure they feel to protect many of those tax exemptions?
To a degree. But it's more ideological. For some, getting rid of an exemption is almost like an increase in taxes.
Let's talk about your new job. How did this happen?
When [outgoing director] Nancy Merrill announced her retirement, my friends said, "This would be perfect for you." The deadline for applications was May 28. They narrowed it to 10 candidates for the first round of interviews, and the final interviews were July 16. I talked to the Parks and Recreation board in the morning. Two hours later, I got a phone call and they asked, "If you're still downtown, can you come back and talk to us again?" I came back; they asked me, "Do you still want the job?" and I said, "Absolutely."
When things got really tough in the recession, and the Parks budget was slashed dramatically, how close did Idaho come to closing state parks?
It was a real threat.
And are there any Idaho parks in dire straits right now?
No. In need of maintenance? Absolutely.
When you're not working, where would we find you?
Fishing, hiking, on my ATV or snowmobile You name it. And camping--hopefully somewhere near the water and a bit of shade.