Long Time Idaho Conservationist Steps Down From The Wilderness Society

Feb 4, 2013

John McCarthy and Babette Munting at Hummock Lake, Boulder-White Clouds
Credit John McCarthy

Until last week, John McCarthy was the Idaho Forest Program Director at the Wilderness Society.  He’s stepping down after a 30-year career in conservation.  McCarthy made a name for himself at the Society, and before that at the Idaho Conservation League, working to preserve some of Idaho’s most pristine places.  He says he got started in conservation after working in the media.

“Well, I came from newspapers, so I had an interest in politics and an interest in government and all those kinds of things and I just have this own personal interest in conservation, it’s what I studied in college,” says McCarthy. “I have a degree in forestry and journalism.  In Idaho you get to know people, you get around and you get familiar and they recruited me from Idaho Conservation League to come in and open up the Moscow office in 1993, 20 years ago.”

Q. So you’ve always liked the outdoors?

A. Yeah, I came to Idaho in 1977, 35 years ago, to work in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness.  I worked long seasons, April to Christmas, for a couple years doing trails and the wilderness just changed my life.  The wilderness just made a huge impression on me, as well as conservation has always made an impression on me, nature and the national parks. 

Q. What’s your greatest achievement in wilderness conservation in your time here?

A. Without question it’s the Owyhee Wilderness.  I actually see the landscape protected and managed for its wilderness values.  Also, since we got it designated in Congress in 2009, we’ve increased the accessibility, and we’ve even enlarged it a little bit by picking up some private lands from willing sellers.  So by making the land not only protected, but making it more accessible to people is really a tremendous achievement and many of us worked on for many, many years.

Q. What was the greatest challenge you didn’t achieve?

A. There’s still a number of undone wilderness protection ideas.  The Clearwater, we still have the Boulder White Cloud’s yet to finish off and that’s really disappointing because I started working on that in the late 1990’s, first with then Congressman (Mike) Crapo, then with Congressman (Mike) Simpson and they’re both really good cooperators.  Really good people took over for me, I handed it over to some other folks as I took on the Owyhee’s, and it’s disappointing that hasn’t been protected, but it will be.  I’m convinced there will be a Boulder White Clouds Wilderness someday, someday soon, probably.

Q. What do you see as critical conservation issues in the future for Idaho?

A. I think this whole sense of collaboration and cooperation is the way to go.  The idea that the local community can work with the larger interest of conservation and economics, I’m sure that’s the way to go and that’s what I’ve been working on primarily for the last seven years I’ve been at The Wilderness.  I think it’s working, it’s still very difficult.  It’s very difficult day to day, for people to commit the time, to really try and understand each other and what’s a common goal.  It’s hard to get out of a negotiation and into cooperation, but I’m convinced that’s the way to go with natural resource management.  We can’t just turn it over to the experts.  They need community backing, they need the backing diverse interests and it’s definitely going in the right direction, it’s just a struggle.  I think it’s a challenge, it’s an opportunity, it’s not an obstacle, but that doesn’t make it easy.

Q. What do you do next?

A. Well, I get to ski any day of the week.  I’m looking forward to that.  I’ll do more hiking, camping with the family and friends and I’ll be out in the wilderness a lot more.  I’m also going to do more of the wilderness experience, wilderness involvement work that I’ve been doing on the side.  We take people out and work on trials, we get people out so they see the land and learn how to get along on the land.  I’m going to do my music show, my jazz show at Radio Boise, KRBX 89.9FM and Jazz Beyond The Sky on Wednesday mornings.  The whole sense of music to me, it’s like nature to me, the more you know, the more you learn, the more interesting it is, the more you really value it.  I’m looking at combining music and nature in my life.  Things are good, I mean Idaho’s a great place, it’s still a great place to be.  I was really happy when I arrived and I’m still happy being here.

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