Idaho resorts near 'wild' river must go

Judge says the Forest Servicemisinterpreted thelaw

 

NORTH FORK, Idaho - About 60 miles from here, on the Salmon River, boaters pass a cozy-looking log lodge and five smaller cabins set amid ponderosa pine about 50 yards from the river.

The 3,510 square-foot facility is headquarters for Whitewater West, outfitters offering multi-day steelhead fishing trips on the Salmon River. In late fall, the weather can turn nasty, and fishing clients are more than happy to spend the evening in heated quarters.

But this could be the last year that anyone stays overnight.

On Sept. 19, U.S. District Judge Sidney Thomas ruled that three fishing lodges, including Whitewater West's at Smith Gulch, are illegal and must be removed. He said permanent resort lodges are not permitted on public land in a corridor designated "wild and scenic," as this one was in 1980.

Judge Thomas agreed that the U.S. Forest Service gave 15-year permits to outfitters to operate "camps" on the Salmon in the mid-1990s. But he pointed out that the agency never gave written permission to build permanent structures.

Wilderness Watch, a Missoula, Mont.-based advocacy group that filed the lawsuit against the Forest Service, hails the decision as a major triumph. Board member Bill Worf says agency officials "just winked and nodded and looked the other way," when the three lodges were built.

Wilderness Watch hopes this case sets a national precedent, kicking out other outfitter resorts along "wild and scenic" rivers.

"The Forest Service argued in court that it had the authority to approve similar resorts along any one of our nation's 57 wild rivers," says Wilderness Watch executive director George Nickas. "Let's hope they got the message and now know better."

Some Forest Service officials were surprised by the decision.

Richard Hauff, retired supervisor of the Salmon National Forest, says the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act allows historic and traditional uses. Hauff says he interpreted those uses to allow 10 lodges and ranches on private land as well as the three lodges on public land in the wild river corridor.

"We thought that was a pretty clear declaration of congressional intent," says Hauff.

Doug Tims, board member of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, adds that the decision is a snub to former Smith Gulch lodge owner Norm Guth. He ferried President Jimmy Carter down the Salmon River just prior to the creation of the 2.4 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in 1980.

"Guth was the guy who sold the rest of the outfitters on the wilderness concept," Tims says. "Without Guth's leadership, the Frank would have been a 600,000-acre wilderness, not the largest forest wilderness in the lower 48."

Tims hopes the U.S. Department of Justice will appeal on behalf of the Forest Service, but if the ruling is upheld, the lodges may have to be removed or burned down, or the outfitters may be phased out over time, say agency officials.

"The judge left it up to us to come up with a remedy," says Ken Wotring, a recreation officer for the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

Stephen Stuebner is a freelance writer in Boise, Idaho.

You can contact ...

  • Wilderness Watch, George Nickas, P.O. Box 9175, Missoula, MT 59807 (406/542-2084), www.wildernesswatch.org;
  • Salmon National Forest, Route 2, Box 600, Highway 93 North, Salmon, ID 83467 (208/756-5100),www.fs.fed.us/r4/sc/.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Stephen Stuebner

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