Letters From the West

PNW power savior Johnson dies in Boise

Peter T. Johnson, former Bonneville Power Administration Administrator in the 1980s.

Peter T. Johnson, former Bonneville Power Administration Administrator in the 1980s.

Peter T. Johnson, whose tough decisions as administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration in the 1980s saved the regional agency from bankruptcy and kept power rates low, died Sunday in Boise.

Johnson, 82, led Boise wood products manufacturer Trus Joist as CEO until 1979, then was appointed BPA administrator by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Johnson was put in charge of the agency that sold power from 31 federal dams to more than 8 million regional residents and businesses throughout the Pacific Northwest.

He arrived as the BPA was embroiled in a multibillion-dollar nuclear construction program later called “whoops” that was careening out of control. His difficult decisions to stop construction on two of three plants forced 6,000 out of work but kept BPA rates low enough to keep Pacific Northwest industries alive, allow the agency to invest billions of dollars to cover the costs of saving endangered salmon, and lay the foundation for the region’s leadership in energy efficiency.

“We’d still have four nuclear corpses out there but they would have a whole lot more money embedded in them that we would be paying off,” said Angus Duncan, chair of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and an energy activist in the 1970s, who pushed for passage of the Northwest Power Act of 1980.

“(Johnson) was just a keen bright talented businessman who wasn’t afraid to listen to the facts and make a decision,” said former Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, who was in the House during Johnson’s BPA tenure.

After graduating from Boise High School and Dartmouth College, Johnson served three years in the Air Force before joining MacGregor Triangle, a Boise construction company. He rose to director and executive vice president before joining Trus Joist Corp. as president and CEO in 1969.

During his tenure there the company grew rapidly as it introduced a new technology for manufacturing structural building components. Walt Minnick, who Johnson hired at Trus Joist and who succeeded him as CEO, said he always was ready to make the tough decisions.

“It was his signature quality at Trus Joist and at the BPA,” said Minnick, who went on to serve in Congress.

Johnson is survived by his wife, Carolyn; four daughters, Linda (Shane) Williams, Laura (Alan) Shealy, LeeAnn (Tim) Berry and Lisa (Sean) Cafferty; and 10 grandchildren.

Services are pending.

Read more about Johnson’s life and legacy Tuesday in the Idaho Statesman and at IdahoStatesman.com.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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