She isn’t anywhere to be found on the 2015 list of the 100 most influential Idahoans compiled in book form by Randy Stapilus, publisher of Ridenbaugh Press. She was, however, on the 2014 list. She should be there somewhere between #74 Phil Reberger, Dirk Kempthorne’s former chief of staff, and #95 former Governor Len B. Jordan.
On November 24th in a scene right out of the old E. F. Hutton television ads
(You remember the tag line: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”) the audience of some 300 concerned citizens jammed into the gymnasium of the Grangeville Elementary school grew quiet.
While the weather outside was rainy and cold with the wind bringing in the taste of the onset of winter, inside the gym things were hot, emtions high and there was legitimate concern for the health and welfare of Idaho Senator James Risch and his staff. Thus, there was an unusual number of police officers and sheriff’s deputies present to ensure the safety of those speaking to th e issue of the day.
Could a proposed land exchange possibly generate so much angst? In a word, yes. Idaho’s junior senator, Jim Risch, was holding an informational discussion among three pre-selected groups to be followed by a public hearing on legislating a proposed 30,000 acre land exchange in the Upper Lochsa River basin between the Forest Service and Western Pacific Timber Company.
Most of those there were opposed to the exchange, so much so that even the well-known local environmentalists, normally the objects of ridicule and scorn in the timber dependent community, were cheered when they spoke in oppostion.
Everybody, though, wanted to hear what the lady with gravitas and a command presence was going to say. Her name is Sandra Mitchell, and without question she is one of the most influential professional public affairs consultants in Idaho. She is the long-time executive director of the Idaho Recreation Council and the Idaho Snowmobile Association. She represents the thousands of Idahoans who enjoy the great out-of-doors, especially the public lands, utilizing atv’s, dirt bikes, snowmobiles and other mechanized vehicles.
Her influence is derived not just because she and her organizations are largely bankrolled by Joe Scott, the heir of Joe Albertson, but also because of her skills and demonstrated abilities. For example, it is widely believed she convinced Senator Risch to back away from his earlier commitment to support Second District Congressman Mike Simpson’s Boulder/White Clouds wilderness proposal. When the smoke cleared a couple years later almost all the areas and trails coveted by snowmobilers and atv riders were still open to their use.
Mitchell, on her part, made no claims but the results spoke for themselves. She also is a devout Republican having cut her teeth working for the 1976 re-election to Congress of Caldwell apple grower Steve Symms and then running his Lewiston office for a number of years, starting in 1977.
No insider doubts her clout and on this particular Tuesday evening all present knew Senator Risch would be listening carefully. One of Mitchell’s assets is she does her homework, digs into the details and does not deal in cant, bromides or platitudes.
She stuck to the allotted two minutes, but went right to the heart of why despite the considerable efforts of Western Pacific’s attorney Andy Hawes, who she has great respect for, to educate folks about why this exchange is in the public interest (and the Forest Service does support it) the company was still coming up short.
The core issue is a lack of trust in Western Pacific to keep its word and in the Forest Service to keep its promises. She cited a long history of broken promises which undeniably had occurred.
She did, however, lay out a path forward for the company and proponents of the exchange, which, if followed, could lead to a change of heart on the part of the folks she represents. She identified eight areas ranging from dissatisfaction with the Forest Service’s process for chosing which lands in Idaho county would be in the exchange, to confusion over how easements would work, to loss of access, to the sale of lands to other private interests after being logged, to impacts on wildlife, to maintenance of roads and trails.
Hawes believes the company can address all these concerns to Mitchell’s satisfaction and that the exchange can still win Senator Risch’s support because folks like Mitchell will reward the company for demonstrating its ability to listen. Mitchell, for her part, will wait and see. She is a living embodiment of the speak softly but carry a big stick school of politics. She does both with skill and charm.