NEW YORK — Cecil D. Andrus, a four-term governor of Idaho who as interior secretary under President Jimmy Carter helped set aside vast expanses of Alaska for parks and reserves, died Thursday of complications of lung cancer at his home in Boise, Idaho. He was 85.
Mr. Andrus liked to portray himself as having stumbled into public life — he was a “political accident,” in his words. It was a sophisticated bit of self-branding, positioning him as passionate rather than opportunistic in a state where the notion of Western authenticity had always played well.
He was 28 in 1960 when his tiny community of Orofino, Idaho, invited the area’s aging Republican state senator to a town meeting to try to persuade him to fight for more financing for a public kindergarten.
“He made the statement, ‘Well, this school system was good enough for me, it’s good enough for your kids,’” Mr. Andrus, a Democrat, recalled in an interview for this obituary in 2012. “I couldn’t help myself. I said, ‘It’s pretty obvious, Senator, that the school system wasn’t even good enough for you.’”
That exchange prompted laughter, and it helped propel Mr. Andrus to run for the same state Senate seat. He won it that fall, and a decade later he became governor, the first Democrat elected to that post in 24 years.
He also may have been the first governor of either party to win by running on an environmental issue. His opposition to a proposed molybdenum mine in the White Cloud Mountains of central Idaho was at the core of his campaign. The mine was never built, and he cruised to reelection in 1974.
Halfway into his second term he received a call from another rural Democrat, Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia. They had become friends over the years while attending meetings of governors’ groups.
“We got along very well,” Mr. Andrus said, “because both of us understood the need for protection of the land that the dear lord has provided to us.”
Carter had just been elected president and had Mr. Andrus in mind for interior secretary. “Cece was the only person I considered for the Cabinet post,” Carter said in a prepared statement Friday.
With Mr. Andrus leading the way, the Carter administration set aside more than 100 million acres in Alaska for federal protection, including what became the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The measure was completed in a lame-duck session of Congress in the final weeks of the Carter administration, after Ronald Reagan had won the 1980 election, denying the president a second term.
The plan drew intense criticism from many Alaskans and industries that wanted more freedom to develop the state’s oil, mineral, timber, and other resources. It also frustrated environmentalists, who wanted the protections to go further.
“After review of all the exceptions, some critics wondered that it was called a conservation act at all,” Alaska historian Stephen Haycox wrote in his book “Frigid Embrace: Politics, Economics and Environment in Alaska” (2002). “But most recognized that it did provide a framework for preservation in Alaska.”
Mr. Andrus acknowledged the imperfections but said that environmentalists would have fared much worse if they had waited for Reagan to take office.
“Even though we were creating tomorrow’s controversies, a 103-million-acre plan — amounting to more than 25 percent of Alaska — was a helluva lot better than nothing,” he said in his 1998 memoir, “Cecil Andrus: Politics Western Style,” which he wrote with Joel Connelly, a Seattle journalist.
Carter saw the Alaska legislation as one of his biggest accomplishments. “Together we made conservation history,” he said in his statement about Mr. Andrus on Friday. “Americans are better off because of his service,” he added, “and I am better because of his friendship.”
In 1988, during a dispute with the federal government over the storage of nuclear waste in Idaho, he won new supporters when he ordered state troopers to block a railroad car filled with nuclear waste from entering a storage site. Two years later he confounded some supporters when he vetoed a bill that would have given Idaho one of the strictest antiabortion laws in the nation. Once again he appealed to his state’s independent streak.
“We Idahoans are a fiercely independent group,” Mr. Andrus said at the time. “We call them as we see them, and I have done that. I know there will be some fallout. I can’t do anything about that.”
Cecil Dale Andrus was born on Aug. 25, 1931 — he died a day before his 86th birthday — in Hood River, Ore. He grew up fishing for salmon with his father, Hal, who worked in the timber industry, and he could recall watching Native Americans fish at Celilo Falls, the famous rapids on the Columbia River that were permanently submerged when dams were built in the 1950s. His mother, the former Dorothy Johnson, was a homemaker.
He graduated from high school in Eugene before enrolling in Oregon State College (now Oregon State University). He served in the Korean War, flying with a patrol bomber squadron.
Soon after returning, Mr. Andrus married his high school sweetheart, Carol May, who survives him.