Judge tells wilderness outfitters to decamp the Frank


The Forest Service will no longer allow outfitter camps in Idaho's Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness to feature propane refrigerators, wood cookstoves or piped water.

These changes stem from rulings issued last fall by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas F. Hogan in response to a lawsuit filed by the environmental group, Wilderness Watch.

Hogan's orders end an eight-year battle over caches - permanent storage - in the Frank Church Wilderness. The camps go back a long way. Outfitters have had fixed camps in the 2.4 million acre wilderness area since at least 1945. These camps frequently included corrals, piped water systems and bunk beds. After wilderness designation in 1980, the Forest Service was directed to rewrite its plans for the six forests in the Frank to include the removal of caches.

But when F. Dale Robertson was appointed Forest Service Chief, outfitters found a sympathetic ear. The Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association sued the Forest Service, and, in a settlement, Robertson agreed to allow caches and piped water systems in the Frank.

Robertson admitted in a Dec. 8, 1992, speech to Idaho outfitters that he dismissed all legal advice from his attorneys when he agreed to the caches. "There are some advantages to being chief. ... I ignored every bit of advice everybody gave me. Only the chief can do that."

Not only did Robertson ignore a report by the Office of General Council which found that caches violated the Wilderness Act, but he also pushed aside the advice of his task force. It reported in December 1988 that caches were unnecessary, that the majority of them were unsightly and obtrusive, that most outfitter camps had unauthorized structures built from native materials and that caches have a negative impact on the experience of most wilderness visitors.

Undeterred, Robertson entered into a second agreement with the outfitters on May 24, 1990, extending the use of caches through 1992. On May 8, 1991, the Forest Service amended the six forest plans to allow caches.

At this point, Wilderness Watch, based in Missoula, Mont., sued the Forest Service, claiming Robertson's actions undermined a 28-year national wilderness policy of "pack it in, pack it out."

Wilderness Watch President Bill Worf calls Judge Hogan's recent decision a major victory: "It gives us everything we asked for." The only structures that should remain in the Frank, he says, are a few corral posts, a few structures for water collection and some base logs to support tents on erosive sites.

In addition, the Forest Service will now assign the 83 outfitter camps on an annual basis. Previously, some outfitters had used the same camp for more than 30 years and had even advertised specific sites when they sold their businesses, says Worf.

Grant Simonds, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, takes exception to Worf's victory claim. He calls the lawsuit frivolous since outfitters had voluntarily agreed to remove most caches by the end of this year. And the new system of annually assigned camp sites merely fine-tunes the existing system, he says.

Some environmentalists sympathize with the outfitters. "Idaho outfitters were crucial to setting the boundaries of the Frank," points out Pat Ford, a staff member with Save Our Salmon. "The Frank would have been better served if all the resources spent on the cache issue had gone to arresting the slide of the area's salmon toward extinction."

All three parties, however, agree that Judge Hogan's decision provides an opportunity to work cooperatively. Hogan has asked the Forest Service for three progress reports on implementing its remedial plan, and both Wilderness Watch and the outfitters have been invited to participate.

The court case "has helped move outfitting operations along in terms of closer interpretation of the Wilderness Act," says Forest Service wilderness specialist Steve Morton. He says other outfitters in the West will now be closely watching what happens in the Frank.

For more information, contact Wilderness Watch, 208 E. Main, Missoula, MT 59801, (406/542-2048); the U.S. Forest Service at 406/329-3316; or the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association at 208/344-2281.

The writer free-lances in Missoula, Montana.