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Knowing Frank

By: Rick Johnson

I met Frank Church once. I shook his hand for a second at the Idaho Conservation League’s 10-year anniversary, in 1983, in what may have been his last public presentation. As ICL heads towards its 50th anniversary, and the wilderness area we now universally call “The Frank” hits its 40th, the magnitude of Church’s legacy only grows with time. So many parts of Idaho are protected because of his work, and how he worked continues to shape the work of others today.

I didn’t know Frank Church, but I sure know the Frank. Like many thousands of others, the Middle Fork of the Salmon is a little bit of home for me, with my float trips into the double digits. More impactful, however, have been my many long walks in the Frank, some with my very best friends, others quite alone. Sometimes, as you uniquely can in the Frank, we’ve gone deep, far from any road. A couple walks went over two weeks, spanning big empty spots on the Idaho map, shared with bear and salmon and our footprints. On one solo trip I saw my first mountain lion, close enough for a nervous photograph with my point and shoot.  On another trip I caught 15 beautiful cutthroats on 15 casts with one fly. I removed the fly to save it as a remembrance. Then I pretty much did it all over again with another fly. I ended that day in a hot spring with a Chinook salmon in view several feet away.

Wilderness is core to my love for Idaho and protecting it became my career. I ran the Idaho Conservation League for 24 years, but I was a seasoned and trail-tested traveler on the conservation path well before that job. Once talking with a former boss and mentor Doug Scott, he said something like, “Rick, when you and I were working to pass the River of No Return bill…” forgetting that I came into the work after that bill passed Congress in 1980. When I pointed this out he was surprised and taken aback, thinking I’d been around longer, part of that historic campaign, as he had been.

At that point of my career, I’d worked on several failed attempts to pass wilderness bills, but had not worked on anything to ever pass Congress. Learning from Doug and many others, I eventually learned how to get things done, that craft of compromise supported by the passion for place, something Frank Church embodied as senate floor manager for the all-important 1964 Wilderness Act which created the entire system, later establishment of the Wild and Scenic Rivers system in 1968, and finally, after other bills impacting Idaho and other states, passing the expansive wilderness bill for the place that now simply known by his first name: “The Frank.”

The next day Doug Scott handed me a cardboard tube. It was a “red line,” a signed copy of the front and back pages of the congressional bill creating the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states. “You should have this,” he said. “It’s my copy, given to me by Frank Church. Hang it in your new office.” ICL had just purchased the historic home in Boise that remains its headquarters. It now hangs with two other red lines, from bill signings for the Owyhee Canyonlands and the Boulder-White Clouds, bills I did work on, bills where I watched the president sign them into law in the White House. I got there from learning from masters of the craft like Doug Scott and, indirectly, through many stories about the work of Frank Church.

No, I didn’t know or work with Frank Church, but I sure knew Bethine, his indominable wife. She, too, was a master of the craft of conservation (and conversation!), and some of my most treasured moments were spent at her side, hearing stories of the Senate and Washington, DC. These were graduate-level classes, in a sense, in conservation politics and I ate them up. Stories included high-energy, high-stakes DC politics and their times in the field, too, in Idaho, like the crazy wilderness hearing in Salmon: a rider-less horse was led into the room as an ominous protest and threat. At the time, when asked what she thought of that, Bethine classically said, “It was a nice horse.”

Long ago I learned something about wilderness work that has sustained me more than anything else: I got into this work to protect special places. I stayed in this work because of special people. Special people “created” the Frank as we know it today and those special people have passed it on to the generations who will know it tomorrow. These are stories for the campfire, of countless people stepping forward and giving a bit of themselves in the moment to protect something timeless. It’s fitting to have that special place named as it is, for one of those very special people. The Frank. Yes, I know it. Because of him, you can, too.


Rick Johnson is the former Director of the Idaho Conservation League