Each summer, thousands of rafters and kayakers head for central Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon River, considered by many the nation's premier wilderness river trip. During the week-long, 100-mile journey, floaters play volleyball on the beach, fly fish for native trout, surf the rapids and cook up Dutch oven feasts - all in the middle of the largest wilderness area in the lower 48, the Frank Church River of No Return. It's so popular that private boaters wait years to get a permit. Commercial trips fill up in a hurry.
Despite the steady demand for
float trips on both the Middle Fork and the main Salmon, the rivers
have tight environmental regulations and leave-no-trace ethics.
Quotas in place since the 1970s limit the number of float parties
each day, and river managers give each group a detailed
environmental talk before they paddle away. It's rare to see litter
anywhere in the river corridor.
So when U.S.
Forest Service officials announced plans to cut whitewater boating
levels in January, they rekindled a raging debate over how many
people is too many in one of the West's most magnificent river
canyons (HCN, 10/13/97).
Forest Service officials
opened the conversation with a draft environmental impact statement
that proposed cutting floaters by 50 percent on the Middle Fork,
and by 30 percent on the main Salmon. The final environmental
impact statement, expected to be complete in 1999 or 2000, will
guide the future management of the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church
Wilderness for the next decade.
overcrowding drove the proposed cutbacks, according to wilderness
planners. During high season in July 1995, about 925 people floated
the Middle Fork at one time, scattered over 100 miles. That number
could jump to 2,400 people at a time under the current
Some people agree that cutbacks are
necessary. "I think the river is overused - there's 10,000 people
who go down there a year," says David Richmond, a private rafter
from Clayton, Idaho, who has yet to draw a permit to run the Middle
Fork in six years of trying.
"We've hiked along
the river, and there's a new boat coming down the river every five
minutes," he adds. "And some of the campgrounds are beat up."
proposals angered outfitters, many of whom are members of The
Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and Idaho conservation groups.
Phones began to ring in congressional offices, and state Democratic
and Republican lawmakers have taken
"These cutbacks are not necessary from a
social side of the spectrum for 99.9 percent of the folks out
there," says Doug Tims, president of Maravia Raft Co. and co-owner
of Northwest River Co. "The Forest Service has looked to a purist
view of what they wished the Wilderness Act said."
Cutbacks would force outfitters to reduce party
sizes from a maximum of 30 people per trip, to 15 per trip on the
The cuts "would ruin our business,"
says David Mills, co-owner of Rocky Mountain River Tours. Rural
grocery stores, hotels, gas stations, hardware stores and air taxi
services all would be heavily affected, he adds. A professional
economist, hired by outfitters, estimates that grocery stores alone
in the wilderness outpost town of Salmon would suffer a $406,403
hit each year.
Tims argues that cutbacks would
also undermine future support for wilderness because "the Frank"
would become precisely what the loggers and miners call it on their
bumper stickers: "Wilderness: Land of No Use."
David Richmond counters that most people support
wilderness "because it's there," without necessarily expecting to
visit it in their lifetimes. "I think that's kind of a joke," he
said of Tims' no-use concerns. "Wilderness needs to be wilderness.
If you allow millions of people to go there, then it isn't
the drawing board
So far, in
public meetings on the draft plan, most people say the proposals
are too restrictive, says David Alexander, supervisor of the
Payette National Forest.
"There's a basic feeling
that the preferred alternative goes way too far - it's way beyond
the minor tweaking that was needed," Alexander says. "We're
listening, and we're very open and willing to make quite a few
changes in the preferred alternative."
says Ken Wotring, wilderness coordinator for the Salmon-Challis
National Forest, "This whole issue is not about what happens
tomorrow to (outfitters), but what kind of wilderness opportunities
we are going to leave behind for our grandkids."
Public meetings on the draft EIS have been held
this month in Oregon and Colorado. The public comment deadline is
Steve Stuebner writes
in Boise, Idaho.
* Learn more about the public meetings or
obtain a copy of the four-volume draft EIS, by calling
* Call the Idaho Outfitters and
Guides Association at 208/342-1438;
* Call Idaho
Rivers United, a group gathering concerns of private boaters and