Former Interior Secretary Cecil V. Andrus, who engineered the conservation of millions of acres of Alaska land during the Carter administration, has died. He was 85. Andrus died late Wednesday of complications from lung cancer, daughter Tracy Andrus said.
A onetime lumberjack, Andrus resigned midway through his second term as Idaho governor in 1977 to become President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of the Interior, serving until Carter’s term ended in 1981. He then was elected governor two more times, becoming the first four-term governor in Idaho history. He was also the last Democrat to hold the office in red-state Idaho.
Carter declared permanent national monuments on 56 million acres in Alaska in 1978. Despite criticism from many Alaskans, Andrus ordered protection of an additional 52 million acres of public lands in the state the same year.
The threat of additional federal protections by executive fiat forced Alaskan lawmakers to compromise on the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, signed by Carter just a month before he left office. The law set aside an area the size of California as national parks, national forests and refuge areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“In the Lower 48, we have to fight to save some single remnant of an area that’s already been ruined,” Andrus later said. “In Alaska, we have a chance to do it right the first time.”
Andrus’ conservation efforts earned him the praise of environmental groups but the rancor of many Alaskans who depended on resources extracted from public lands for their livelihoods. A popular bumper sticker on Alaskan pickup trucks proclaimed, “Lock up Andrus, not Alaska.”
In a 2003 speech, Andrus criticized the much-debated proposal to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “It is a place that is so fragile it takes 100 square miles for a grizzly bear to forage,” he said. “It takes 50 years for a tree to grow.”
Historian T.H. Watkins once wrote that only three Interior secretaries — Harold Ickes, Andrus and Stuart Udall — understood the importance of wilderness preservation “to the spiritual and ecological well-being of the nation.”
The outdoors was Andrus’ passion and Beltway power-politics never suited him, even if he was considered adept at it. He liked to brag that after leaving the Interior post, he never spent more than one night in Washington again.
“The reason so many people live back East is because they don’t know any better,” he once told the Salt Lake Tribune.
Andrus was a state senator when he won the governor’s race in 1970 after the original Democratic nominee died in a plane crash.
His popularity was cemented with a regular-guy governing style. Andrus listed his home phone number in the Boise directory, made breakfast for his children each morning before driving himself to his office at the Statehouse, and took three days off in the heat of his successful 1974 reelection campaign to bag an elk.
“A decaying highway infrastructure cannot be appreciated when you are traveling by helicopter or talking on the phone in the back of a limousine,” Andrus wrote in his 1998 autobiography. “A cook in the governor’s mansion means you have to learn food prices only when ambush interviews threaten at election time.”
Even before it was evident that Carter would not be reelected in 1980, Andrus had publicly said he planned to return West in 1981. He said being governor of Idaho was “the best political job in the world.”
After returning to Idaho to work as a consultant, Andrus mounted a comeback campaign and narrowly won election as governor again in 1986 with a scant 3,600 votes over Republican Lt. Gov. David Leroy. Voters then sent him back to an unprecedented fourth term in 1990 with 68% of the vote.
His biggest fight in the waning days of his political career came when he blocked the U.S. Department of Energy from shipping radioactive waste from a Colorado nuclear weapons site to the Idaho National Laboratory. After accepting the waste on a “temporary” basis for 17 years, Andrus said, Idaho would no longer be the nation’s radioactive garbage dump.
The standoff persisted through his Republican successor, Gov. Phil Batt, and the Energy Department ultimately signed a 1995 agreement to remove all the radioactive rubbish that had been dumped in Idaho since the Cold War.
When the federal government challenged the terms of that agreement in court in 2006, Andrus took the witness stand to help the state’s successful case to hold federal energy officials to the cleanup commitment.
“We live in a society where a person’s word is a contract,” Andrus testified. “Inside the Beltway, they don’t live that way.”
Andrus would continue fighting the issue during his final years, pointing his criticism toward Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter when it became known in January that the state was looking at creating a waiver to allow shipments of spent fuel.
Andrus was born in 1931, in Hood River, Ore., and attended Oregon State University but did not graduate before he served in the Navy during the Korean War. He came back to Oregon to work as a logger and then moved with his family in 1955 to Orofino in northern Idaho to work at his father’s sawmill.
After the sawmill closed, Andrus entered the insurance business. His 35-year political career began when he arrived late at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Orofino to discover his beer-drinking buddies had decided to nominate him to run for the Legislature. In 1960, at age 29, he defeated a Republican incumbent and was elected to the first of three two-year terms as a state senator before an unsuccessful 1966 bid for governor. He returned to the state Senate in 1968.