The legend-making began quickly this week with news that former Idaho Sen. James McClure, 86, had died.
Even in the case of a politician’s death, Americans have a natural inclination to soften edges, revise history and speak kindly of the deceased out of respect for families.
But out of respect for the national forests that suffered McClure’s tenure, the record begs a brief reality check.
Certainly he was a refreshing gentleman in contrast to the volatile politics we must endure today, yet McClure was not always an adherent of inclusiveness, as some suggested this week, nor was he a champion of the public interest.
He jumped on the Reagan bandwagon in the early 1980s to support Interior Secretary James Watt and his in-your-face Sagebrush Rebellion plan to privatize public lands.
McClure’s stature as a chairman of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee started paying off quickly in 1981 – a year in which he earned $1.7 million for his sideline of penning articles and giving speeches.
In the fall of 1981, McClure introduced Secretary Watt at the Western States Republican Convention in Coeur d’Alene. First, however, he referred to more than 500 peaceful Watt protesters outside as “a rag-tag few” who were “magnifying something that isn’t very large.”
That played well in CdA, but a few days later, conservation groups delivered to Washington, D.C., 1 million signatures of voters who wanted Watt booted out.
Remember, that was before e-mail, Facebook or Twitter – when 1 million was still a big number.
Two years later, the rag-tag public outraged by the assault on public lands and natural resources forced Watt to resign.
But McClure was able to shape his own style of putting the private sector in charge of public lands with his influence on national forest management.
In August of 1986, for example, he staged a series of public meetings dealing with management plans being rewritten by the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.
The public was not allowed to speak, just panels of invited guests.
One small group of conservationists was included, but they were outnumbered by panels representing the timber industry, chambers of commerce, Women in Timber, forest supervisors and boards of education to tout their interests in maintaining unsustainable timber harvest.
The Idaho Fish and Game Department was not invited, nor was the Department of Health and Welfare and the Environmental Protection Agency, all of which had gone on record to point out the damage Forest Service proposals could do to wildlife habitat and water quality.
Incidentally, although Rep. Larry Craig and Sen. Steve Symms were at McClure’s side during those hearings, he did not invite the fourth member of the Idaho congressional delegation, Rep. Richard Stallings, who was on the House subcommittee on forests!
Maybe McClure didn’t want knowledgeable scrutiny. Just the week before the Coeur d’Alene hearings, Idaho’s senior senator was shot down in his own Interior appropriations committee for proposing a windfall for the forest road- building program – $75 million ABOVE what even the Reagan administration had proposed.
The Idaho Sportsmen’s Coalition already had tabulated the official public comments and found the response was 7-1 against the Forest Service’s proposed alternatives for more excessive logging and roadbuilding.
“In remembering Sen. McClure and his legacy, people can point to contributions he made in conservation,” said John Osborn, the Spokane physician who co-founded the Inland Empire Public Lands Council during McClure’s tenure to give fish, wildlife, scientists and sportsmen a voice in national forest planning.
“My work in forest conservation and mining wastes cleanup during the 1980s and 1990s gave me an unusual opportunity to observe McClure in action.”
Responding to my request for his recollections, Osborn said McClure used his substantial political power to:
Impose unachievable logging targets on the Panhandle, Clearwater and Nez Perce national forests.
Fund hundreds of millions of tax dollars to bulldoze “logging roads to nowhere.”
Play high-stakes political poker with the nation’s roadless areas to block wilderness protections in Idaho.
Ruin the careers of many professionals within agencies responsible for public lands for failing to “get out the cut.”
Sealing his legacy in public land stewardship, McClure left the Senate for board rooms of corporations, including Boise Cascade, and to use his knowledge and Senate connections to work as a lobbyist.
Now you know at least part of the rest of the story.