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Visit Idaho wilderness; only half is a disaster

Copyright Lewiston Tribune. Written by Marty Trillhaase February 21, 2013.

Visit Idaho wilderness; only half is a disaster

At 2.3 million acres, Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is the largest wilderness of its kind in the lower 48 states.

Thousands of tourists float its Middle Fork and Main Salmon rivers every year. Thousands more hike, backpack and horseback ride throughout it in search of backcountry solitude.

So how would Idaho lawmakers describe this crown jewel?

  • Burned out by “numerous and frequent large destructive fires and range fires …”
  • Watersheds that suffered “tremendous damage and destruction. …”
  • Disappearing soil and native plants, overtaken by “noxious and undesirable plants.”
  • Lost “wilderness values and attributes … resulting in serious economic impact to surrounding communities, counties, the state of Idaho and businesses …” that depend upon the natural resources.
  • A trail system that has been damaged, neglected and is deteriorating.

And if you don’t get the point, a legislative telegram – formally known as a House joint memorial – to Congress, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell – suggests the whole wilderness be declared a “natural resources disaster area.”


Does spending time in a “natural resources disaster area” sound like fun to you?

If so, you’ve booked reservations for the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged Jersey Shore boardwalk.

You were among the first to visit oil-coated beaches of the Gulf Coast right after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident.

You eagerly toured New Orleans right after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

Can you imagine what designating the “Frank” a natural disaster area does to the poor river floater trying to line up reservations?

What it means to jet boat operators rounding up clients for trips out of Riggins?

How about anyone trying to squeeze economic development out of Idaho’s tourist-based economy?

What’s their new slogan? Come to Idaho. We have 4.6 million acres of wilderness. Only half is a disaster.

Deteriorating trails are a problem. Fires are a part of the cause. Fallen snags block access. Floods have taken out bridges.

Neglect is another part of the equation. When Congress passed the Central Idaho Wilderness Act of 1980, it mandated the Frank’s trails be cleared of obstructions annually. But the cost – estimated to run in the millions during the next decade – seems out of reach in an age of shrinking Forest Service budgets and escalating fire suppression costs.

Sponsors say they used the “natural disaster” phrase as a shot across the bow to draw attention to genuine problems with trails. But if trail restoration is truly the point of their missive, why does the issue not rate mention until the memorial runs through its litany of complaints about fires, watersheds, streams, habitat, scenic values, public access and safety, air quality and public health?

If the goal of this measure is to promote wilderness values, why is it co-sponsored by Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis? Barrett has many fine qualities, but being an ardent advocate for wilderness is not among them.

If the idea is to attract federal support for creative solutions – such as an inventory of trail improvement needs as well as a greater involvement of volunteer groups and outfitters and guides in trail restoration – then why scratch Idaho’s proverbial itch toward fed-bashing?

Why put the blame on policies that restore a natural fire cycle to the backcountry?

Why turn a legitimate call for help into a political gripe?

Resorting to anti-federal hyperbole makes for feel-good politics at home. It’s not likely to get one trail rebuilt. It merely invites Idaho’s legislators to bite the hand they want to feed them. – M.T.