Frank Church-River Of No Return Wilderness

Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Chuck Pezeshki Photo

Congress created the River of No Return Wilderness in 1980 (renamed the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in 1984). Perhaps the greatest success of Idaho conservationists, it is the single largest designated wilderness area in the lower 48 states. It is almost 2.4 million acres in extent, covering a vast array of ridges, deep canyons, glaciated peaks, meadows, and one large rolling plateau–the Chamberlain Basin, which covers 500 square miles.

Located entirely in the vast Salmon River Mountains, the  Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness embraces a portion of the largest continuously mountainous terrain in the United States. Over 3,000 miles of trails provide access inside the wilderness. The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is full of wildlife, especially elk, but also mule and while-tailed deer, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bear, coyotes, bobcat, numerous cougar, pine marten, wolverine, a few lynx, and grey wolves. Only the grizzly bear is lacking. Because the altitude ranges from 2,000 or 3,000 feet in the deepest canyons to over 10,000 feet on the peaks, year round range for wildlife is provided. Elk, deer and moose do not need to migrate out of the wilderness to winter range near Idaho towns and cities.

After the death of Senator Frank Church in 1984, Idaho Senator Jim McClure had Congress rename the wilderness the “Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness” in honor of the late Senator Church’s support for preserving this wild core of the Idaho mountains.  This 2.4 million-acre wilderness is separated from the 1.3 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, to its immediate north, by one dirt road–the Magruder Corridor. Of course, this track is no barrier to wolf migration. Most of the reintroduced wolves have spent time in both great wilderness areas — the wild heart of Idaho.

The beginnings of the establishment of this wilderness came in the 1930s, when the U.S. Forest Service set aside over one million acres through its administrative authority and named it the “Idaho Primitive Area.” Sixteen years after the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, the United States Congress established the River of No Return Wilderness from the Idaho Primitive Area, the adjacent Salmon River Breaks Primitive Area and other surrounding roadless public lands. Thirty-six wolves were reintroduced into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness during January 1995 and 1996. As a result, hundreds of wolves now roam this Wilderness, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the north, and adjacent country. At the end of 2003, 32 groups or wolf packs roamed Idaho, and about 15 of them used all of part of the Frank Church-River of No Return or Selway-Bitterroot Wildernesses.

Two Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Salmon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon, flow through the Wilderness. Both rivers are popular with white-water kayakers and rafters. The headwaters of the Wild and Scenic Selway River lie in the northern-most part of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness too. The Wilderness covers parts of numerous national forests — the Bitterroot, Boise, Salmon-Challis, Nez Perce-Clearwater, and Payette National Forests. With the additional exception of a few popular high lakes areas and the two river corridors, most of the Wilderness sees very little human use except from hunters in the fall.

Beginning in 1980, the number of wildfires inside the Frank Church-River of No Return began to increase. The greatest fire season was 2000 when wildfires caused the evacuation of the Wilderness for the first time in its history. Because heavy equipment was not used to suppress the fires, the wilderness quality of the area will not suffer, although some drainages like the long Pistol Creek drainage burned almost entirely. In 2001, the year after the fires, the usual flush of ground cover regeneration was not seen because the drought lingered on and deepened. There were additional fires as well. 2004 however, saw the end of the drought, except in a hydrological sense, and the grass and forbs grew high among the burned trees, and the elk population started rebounding.

In spite of its size, the area has many threats. Motorized jet boats are allowed to mar the silence on the Main Salmon River. Numerous landing meadows see airplane traffic. The Idaho Fish and Game Department wants free reign to turn the area into a game farm by using helicopters to capture wildlife. Three illegally built lodges on public land along the Salmon River are still there because a last-minute, underhanded maneuver in Congress overturned a court order which required the lodges to be removed. Some progress has been made, however. A necessary lawsuit from Wilderness Watch forced outfitters to clean up the places where they camp in the Wilderness.

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