Ruckus on a recreation river

  • Boundary Creek launch site, Middle Fork of the Salmon River

    Steve Stuebner photo

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.

Concerns about 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 system.

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 soak river guides

But the 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 notice.

"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 Middle Fork.

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 wilderness anymore."

Still on 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."

Still, 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 Dec. 1.

Steve Stuebner writes in Boise, Idaho.

You can ...

* Learn more about the public meetings or obtain a copy of the four-volume draft EIS, by calling 208/756-5100;

* Call the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association at 208/342-1438;

* Call Idaho Rivers United, a group gathering concerns of private boaters and conservationists, at 208/343-7481.

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