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Collaborative brings good news to Clearwater Country


Idaho is a paradoxical state. In some places it’s desert and sand dunes, in others, ferns and red cedar.

Its people are also a complex mix of rugged individualists with strong churches and communities, of urban professionals and backwoods blue-collar workers. Those contradictions can pull the state apart or bring folks together.

One of those "working together" moments emerged in the Clearwater Basin of north-central Idaho. This country is dear to my heart, as it’s where I grew up and was introduced to the great outdoors. I’ve cruised timber here, learned to backpack, float whitewater, catch trout, and pick huckleberries. Like the native steelhead, I seem to have a homing instinct that draws me back to the Clearwater.

For decades, factions have fought over the Clearwater’s timber, water, wildlife and fisheries. Passions run high because the resources are so rich.

But the major battles and Timber Wars are past and no one really won. Rural towns feel desperate for their future. Conservationists still have no wilderness protected north of U.S. Highway 12 to show for decades of effort. The Clearwater Basin has six million acres of habitat to be managed, most of it national forest, but needed a clearer vision of what that means.

So for five years, representatives of timber, local elected officials, conservationists, the Nez Perce Tribe, motorized recreationists and sportsmen’s groups put together a vision for the future of the Clearwater Basin. The effort was like the old logging days, when lumberjacks blasted huge logjams trying to float logs downstream: it was dangerous, uncomfortable, and strenuous and at some moments seemed futile.

But it worked. This week, the Clearwater Basin Collaborative reached consensus on an agreement for the future of the basin’s people, public land, wildlife and water. It includes protecting key areas like the Great Burn and Mallard-Larkins as wilderness, and additions to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, but also helps streamline logging elsewhere, consistent with all existing laws, through an approach that has already resulted in increased timber jobs. It also addresses the needs of the Nez Perce Tribe who have called the region home since time immemorial.

Don’t worry: not everyone will like the plan. It will be attacked from both sides of the spectrum. But most are tired of the bickering of the past and want to move forward.

Next, it’s up to Congress. The meeting rooms of Orofino, Lewiston and Kamiah are a world away from the Beltway. But these are national forests and the entire nation has an interest in their future.

The folks in Idaho will have to demonstrate their vision is the best not just for them, but good for all.

So the work begins anew.  The logjam may be broken, but good-hearted folks will have to keep their pike poles handy and their spiked boots on and brave the treacherous waters until the job is done.

The Clearwater River and its many tributaries live up to their names with water pure enough for steelhead and cutthroat trout. Photo © Bill Mullins and courtesy of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative.

Ben Long is a outdoorsman, father and conservationist who has split his life between Idaho and Montana, where he currently lives. He is senior program director for Resource Media.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.