Cars and wilderness collide on a rim

  • Hells Canyon

    Diane Sylvain
  • In Oregon, a horse and pack string walks along the wilderness rim

    Scott Stouder

Separating Oregon and Idaho, Hells Canyon is so vast between rim and river it forms two distinct climates. The Snake River that shaped it is gathered from 30 rivers crossing five states; its gorge is the deepest cut by a river in North America.

Standing on the wind-carved Oregon side of Hells Canyon eye-to-eye with Idaho's Seven Devils Mountains is an experience that words can't penetrate.

But roads can - and have.

Most visitors see the canyon from the seat of a recreational vehicle along the 38 miles of roads and parking lots that line the western rim. Today, just 12 miles of Oregon's 50 miles of rim remain free of cars, and that is only because the road becomes too narrow for safety.

Rep. Bob Smith, R-Ore., and a group of Baker City residents would like to change that. Smith has introduced a bill (HR 799) to nudge aside a wilderness boundary and allow vehicles on seven miles of an old fire road that was gouged into the rim in 1968. The dirt path served as a primitive 4x4 route until 1989, when it was discovered to be inside the wilderness and closed.

"Congress never intended to close that road," Smith said at a recent House subcommittee hearing on the bill, which he says is simply an attempt to correct a mapping error.

Opponents to HR 799 say the question of congressional intent 20 years ago isn't the issue today. They say Smith's real purpose is to intrude upon wilderness values.

In any case, they add, the wilderness boundary has been established twice. The first was the geographical center of the ridge between the Snake and Imnaha rivers. In 1978, the boundary was redefined to the hydrological divide, the place where rainfall hits and then travels down to either the Snake or Imnaha rivers.

"The original boundary wasn't good enough and now the hydrological divide isn't good enough because Bob Smith wants to shove the wilderness over the rim to make way for another road," said Ric Bailey, executive director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council.

Bailey says a small group of residents of Baker City, a 90-minute drive to the south, has pushed for a more developed Hells Canyon. Larry Griffith, executive director of Baker County Chamber of Commerce, makes no secret about the group's position.

"For us, the (Hells Canyon) National Recreation Area is a tourist draw," said Griffith, who recently flew back to Washington to testify in favor of the bill. Griffith says only a few people will drive the road and re-opening it won't hurt wildlife.

Others disagree. Dave Bishop, a retired Forest Service district ranger who worked in Hells Canyon, said, "It should be a criminal offense to use a motorized vehicle on that rim. Why can't we leave a little of the world alone for wildlife and for others who want quiet and solitude?"

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife calls more rim road "utter nonsense." Vic Coggins, the state's biologist in Hells Canyon since 1966, says the non-motorized section of rim is the only unsevered migratory route remaining for mule deer, elk and bighorn sheep. He also points to the rim as important habitat for blue grouse, wolverine and other wildlife.

"Healthy wildlife need undisturbed space and that space is getting smaller and smaller in Hells Canyon," Coggins said, noting that mule deer numbers are chronically low and elk numbers are declining.

Motorized development in Hells Canyon started in earnest in 1993, when the Forest Service improved the 23-mile road from Imnaha to Hat Point and constructed a 6.5-mile two-lane highway and paved parking lot with tourist amenities. From Overlook I, it's some 5,500 feet to the river below.

Before construction of Overlook I, only five cars a day traveled the gravel road during the summer. In 1994, traffic increased to 71 vehicles per day; by 1995, those numbers had climbed to over 200 vehicles per day.

To handle the increased traffic, the Forest Service proposed a $1.4 million motorized development called Overlook II, which would have extended the two-lane highway - with overlooks, parking lots and campgrounds - another nine miles along the rim. The project was stopped at the last minute by a lawsuit filed by environmental groups in Oregon and Montana.

According to a 1994 independent survey paid for by the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, 90 percent of the people living in 17 communities near Hells Canyon expressed opposition to more roads in Hells Canyon. The Oregon governor's office, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon Hunters Association, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Oregon Izaak Walton League and local ranchers have all expressed opposition.

Griffith, of the Baker County Chamber of Commerce, assures critics:

"Our focus is very narrow. We have no plans to improve the road, we only want to open it to motorized traffic."

Bishop, who has watched roads creep over the Hells Canyon landscape for more than 40 years, notes that plans change. He says the natural beauty of Hells Canyon is more than sweeping vistas and scenery seen through bug-splattered windshields.

"The dominant character of Hells Canyon has historically been defined by its natural experience," he said. "These last few miles of non-motorized rim are the last remnant of that character. If you can't ride horseback or walk, then maybe you should just give it up."

Testimony on the bill was heard March 20 in the House Agricultural Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. The bill is expected to be presented before the full committee, which is chaired by Smith.

Scott Stouder writes for the Corvallis Gazette-Times in Oregon and serves on the state board of the Oregon Hunters Association.

High Country News Classifieds