Idaho Conservation League celebrates 50 years

By Brad Smith
Reader Contributor

The Idaho Conservation League was founded in 1973 to be the voice for conservation in the Idaho Legislature. Conservation activists and local groups from around the state recognized that they could not effectively engage lawmakers in faraway Boise. So local environmental organizations like the Panhandle Environmental League and Kootenai Environmental Alliance came together at the urging of Ken Cameron to form ICL, and hired a lobbyist to represent them in the capitol. 

By having a voice in the Statehouse, conservationists were able to convince the Legislature to pass the Land Use Planning Act, create the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, blocked the construction of coal-fired power plants in Idaho, and successfully opposed efforts to seize public lands during the Sagebrush Rebellion of 1980 and more recent efforts in 2012. 

Like any fledgling organization, the early years were hard. The board of directors and staff struggled to keep the lights on and make payroll. The League almost failed to endure, but when late-Idaho Sen. Frank Church called upon ICL to organize support for federal legislation to protect the River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho, it gave the organization the boost it needed to survive. The wilderness campaign and other issues of the day caused the breadth of ICL’s work to grow beyond the Legislature.

ICL members Jude Hawkes, Patsy Batchelder and Janet O’Crowley attend an ICL meeting in the 1980s. Photo by Andy Wiessner.

Today, ICL has a staff of 34 committed conservation advocates. ICL’s public lands team works to protect wilderness areas like the Boulder-White Clouds and Owyhee Canyonlands, and ensure that our forests and deserts are managed sustainably. Our salmon team works to restore Idaho’s salmon and steelhead by advocating for breaching the four lower Snake River dams. ICL’s climate team is convincing utility companies to divest from fossil fuels and invest in clean sources of renewable energy. Our wildlife program seeks to conserve healthy populations of both game and nongame species, while staff in southern Idaho work to clean up pollution from dairies and agriculture in the Snake River.

Although the Idaho Conservation League is no longer an umbrella organization for small environmental groups around the state, the organization has and always will remain committed to North Idaho. 

ICL co-founder Mary Lou Reed of Coeur d’Alene wouldn’t have it any other way. In the early years of ICL, she walked into ICL’s office in Boise and placed a plaque in the executive director’s office that has outlived anyone to serve in that capacity. It reads, “Remember North Idaho!”

The accomplishments of ICL staff, members and volunteers in North Idaho over the past 50 years are too numerous to count. My apologies to the people, the stories and the accomplishments that I am failing to list, but some that I recall include the successful efforts of Will Venard, Jerry Pavia and the Boundary Backpackers to save Long Canyon and its old growth trees from logging. The work of Susan Drumheller, Nancy Dooley and the Friends of Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail protected the shoreline between Sandpoint and Ponderay from becoming a string of condos and private beaches.

As the Idaho Conservation League enters its next 50 years, it is clear that there will always be a need for our presence in North Idaho. The lakes and waterways that define our region of the state face greater threats than ever. 

The Idaho Club, whose logo ironically features a moose, is proposing to dredge and fill wetlands at the mouth of Trestle Creek despite the harm that it will cause to water quality, bull trout, eagles, beavers and other wildlife. Meanwhile, pollution from coal mines in southeast British Columbia is contaminating the Kootenai River and undermining efforts of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho to recover sturgeon and burbot. 

These kinds of threats prompted ICL to launch our North Idaho Lakes and Waterways program in 2022.

Public lands and wildlife will continue to be a priority of our work in North Idaho. As our population grows, there’s a need to sustainably manage recreation. That’s why we are partnering with snowmobilers and backcountry skiers to craft a winter recreation plan for the Sandpoint, Priest Lake and Bonners Ferry Ranger Districts. ICL will also continue to advocate for the protection of our remaining wildlands like the Scotchman Peaks, Selkirk Crest and Long Canyon, and promote responsible management of our national forests.

I may not be part of ICL’s team when the time comes to celebrate 100 years, but both you and I can rest assured, knowing that ICL has established a strong foundation. When I say ICL, I’m not only referring to our devoted staff and board of directors, but also to the numerous members and supporters who steadfastly stand with us every step of the way. 

Whether it’s today’s challenges or those looming on the horizon 50 years from now, ICL will forever be a voice for conservation across the great state of Idaho.

Brad Smith is the North Idaho director of the Idaho Conservation League in Sandpoint.

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