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Pat Ford

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When Pat Ford speaks, people listen. Whether he is introducing Sen. Mike Crapo to a room full of anti-nuclear activists or holding forth on the ways global warming is changing the movement, Ford brings history, poetry and vision to his view of the environment. Ford, a writer and one-time editor at High Country News, is the executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, a large coalition of Northwest salmon and steelhead conservation groups. He has been involved in the conservation movement since the late 1970s, when he became an early leader of the Idaho Conservation League. BW talked to him about the history of the green movement in Idaho and where it is going.

You call yourself a conservationist rather than environmentalist. Why?

I'll tell you what it is for me. A) I just like the word better. Environmentalism is such a mechanical word. I don't like it. Conservation is a smoother word, and it's got the word "serve" embedded in it, and I think that's a better way to view what I do, than to have the word "mental" embedded in it. "Iron" and "mental" don't make sense for me as good words for what I try to do.

Second, is that word goes back to the tradition of the hunting-and-fishing oriented conservation that was sort of the Teddy Roosevelt conservation. And that's what conservation was in Idaho in the '30s and '40s; it came out of the hunting and fishing community, the Idaho Wildlife Federation.

How did you become a conservationist?

I grew up in Idaho Falls. My folks weren't outdoors people. I didn't really realize growing up what Idaho was and how unique it was until I moved away for college. I went to college in New York City. And that's what really got me. And it was that experience of getting out of Idaho and then deciding that I wanted to come back that sort of made me see Idaho for the first time. And once I got back from college, this was in the late '60s, early '70s, that was the time when what I'll call the professionalizing, or the phase I think we're still in, of Idaho conservation started. Where it began to move from basically a hunting-and-fishing oriented conservation to one that was about a broader range of issues ... And all the laws were passed back then: Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act.

Are Reps. Simpson and Crapo's wilderness proposals in the same line of conservation work as yours?

I think it's a combination of things. There's clearly a similarity, a consistency. Frank Church was a champion of the wilderness, for preserving wild lands for the future, and Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson, especially now with Larry Craig gone, have responded to that and say things that you could imagine coming out of Frank Church's mouth relative to wild land ... Another similarity is that the people of the state are putting a demand upon the politicians to do things, and politicians of either party react to people's demands. Most people in Idaho wanted Frank Church to designate wilderness in the '70s. Most people today wanted Mike Crapo to protect some of the Owyhees.

There's also obviously a difference. The difference is that both Simpson and Crapo, in very different ways ... from their point of view, solve some other issues, not just wilderness. So that's where you get to the fact that the Owyhee bill was supported by Owyhee Cattlemen, because it helped solve some issues for them that relate to access and money, largely. And why the White Clouds bill, if it passes, will also solve some issues as it relates to Stanley, Challis and rural areas up there in terms of economic development. That kind of stuff was not part of the wilderness bills that Frank Church passed. That didn't mean he didn't attend to those issues. He did. What he largely did was leave areas out of wilderness.

Does having ranchers support wilderness now change your job?

Yes. The good is, what that means in part is that the conservation ethic is now fairly broadly and deeply established in many constituencies or publics in Idaho. It's not just among hunters and fishermen or among professional people coming in to Idaho. It's among farmers and ranchers, it's among everyday citizens, it's in rural areas as well as urban areas. It's pretty broad, and I think a bunch of that has to do with schooling and age. People have died off that were the original battlers around these things, and so that's a good thing in my view.

The challenges are that there's a lot more voices now. There's a lot more voices saying "I'm a conservationist, I care about conservation and here's what I think." And what they think is a much broader range than it used to be. Cattlemen can now legitimately, in my view, call themselves conservationists and have a legitimate say in saying, "but here's what I think conservation is. My cows are a part of conservation." Now, that doesn't mean I agree, but they're saying it, as opposed to saying, "you environmentalists are wackos, I don't give a damn about you," they're saying, "I'm with you in my way, and here's my way."

How does the consumerist "green" movement relate to this trajectory?

So there was always in Idaho, since I've been involved ... the personal ethic in conservation which wasn't restricted to those who considered themselves conservationists, of wanting to live by their principles. But I think it's clearly now something that is bigger and broader ...

I know in the early years of the Idaho Conservation League, when I worked there, we gave less attention to how we ourselves operated our own lives, personal choices ... We gave less attention to that than to policies, laws and regulations. So there's more attention now by the organized conservation folks to habits, behaviors, consumer choices, business decisions. We never thought much in the '70s or the early '80s of working much with Idaho businesses ... Now there is a very deliberate effort by people like Justin Hayes at ICL to work with businesses, whether it's Idaho Power Company or whoever, to try to accomplish good goals, knowing that those businesses are likely to be approachable ... So that's "new" in the sense that it's now broader and bigger. It fits well in Idaho because at least there is the ... self image of Idahoans that they're independent, making their own decisions ... I think that there is some level of bogusness in that, but at the same time, I get it ... The fact that you can use your own choices to further the cause of the Earth or your children is, I think, something that appeals to Idahoans regardless of party, regardless of whether they've been here all their life or just moved in.

Read more of the Ford interview at boiseweekly.com.