A Matter of Opinion

The Debate Over Access to the Frank Church Wilderness
By Stephen Stuebner
  |  Gorp.com
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When the late Idaho Senator Frank Church lobbied Congress to set aside the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in 1980, he wanted to make sure it would be accessible to the American public. Opponents argued that creating such a massive wilderness area would "lock out" visitors, but Church, who was one of the architects of the Wilderness Act of 1964, knew that could be avoided. He knew that the airstrips, the rivers and the trails would give people a variety of ways to access and experience "the Frank."

"It is not the intent of Congress that wilderness be administered in so pure of fashion as to needlessly restrict customary use and enjoyment," Church said in a 1977 speech at the University of Idaho, during a wilderness debate. "Quite the contrary, Congress fully intended that wilderness should be managed to allow its use by a wide spectrum of Americans."

Eighteen years after the wilderness was set aside by Congress, the U.S. Forest Service proposed a new plan last January to reduce access to the Frank Church Wilderness. Fearing that existing public-use quotas on the Middle Fork and main Salmon rivers allow too much use, the Forest Service proposed cutting river permits by 50 percent on the Middle Fork and 30 percent on the main Salmon. Four airstrips would be closed, and jet boat use on the main Salmon would be curtailed by 74 percent for outfitters and 87 percent for private boaters.

The plan, which would be implemented for a ten-year trial period, has proven controversial to say the least. But Forest Service officials say they need to restrict public use to enhance people's "wilderness experience."

"This whole issue is not about what happens tomorrow to (outfitters), but what kind of wilderness opportunities are we going to leave behind for our grandkids?" says Ken Wotring, wilderness coordinator for the Salmon-Challis National Forests in Salmon, Idaho.

"These cutbacks are not necessary," counters Doug Tims, president of Maravia Raft Co. and co-owner of Northwest River Co., a Selway River outfitting service. "The Forest Service has looked to a purist, strict constructionist view of what they wished the Central Wilderness Act said. And they ignored the words of Frank Church himself."

Bob Powell, 35, a kayaker and rafter who coordinates adventure travel for the Natahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, N.C., contends that the existing quota system on the Salmon River works well. "It's not surprising to me that the Forest Service is trying to improve the wilderness experience. This is an initiative that's going on nationally. But I don't think they need to decrease the numbers on the (Salmon). It's got a great reputation because it's a well-managed river."

Indeed, the Salmon-Challis national forests make a major effort to protect the environment on the main Salmon and Middle Fork. Rangers are stationed at all launch points on both rivers, and all float parties must listen to a 15-minute environmental and river safety talk before they depart. All river parties must carry portable toilets for packing out human waste, fire pans for containing charcoal and campfires, and containers for packing out ashes.

Forest Service officials say the proposed cutbacks are not based on environmental damage, however. They are most concerned about too many people using the river corridors at once. Public use in the backcountry is light, so they have not proposed any quotas or use restrictions for backpackers and stock users.

Public meetings will continue on the Forest Service plan through the month of June, in locations such as Portland, Seattle and Colorado (dates yet to be determined). The public comment deadline is December 1.

Payette National Forest Supervisor David Alexander, who is one of three supervisors who will preside over public hearings in the next few months, said the Forest Service is listening. "There's a basic feeling that the preferred alternative goes way too far— it's way beyond the minor tweaking that was needed," he said. "We're basically saying, 'we're listening,' and we're very open and willing to make quite a few changes in the preferred alternative."

In the meantime, the summer recreation season is kicking into high gear, as the weather in the Rockies settles down for a long, warm summer. The snow is receding from the mountains, the elk are gathering in verdant mountain meadows, wolves are watching from a distance, and the rivers are descending from flood stage to a safe level.

Ah, yes, it's going to be yet another beautiful, relaxing summer in "the Frank." I can hear it calling now.

For more information on the Forest Service proposal to cut public use, call Kent Fuellenbach, public information officer, Salmon-Challis National Forests, 208-756-5145.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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