Towering along the Salmon River as it slices through Idaho lies the second largest protected wilderness area in the nation. The Frank Church — River of No Return Wilderness Area is 2.3 million acres of forested mountain ranges, meadows, lakes and streams. It was first established in 1980 and renamed for Idaho’s former senator in 1984.
That vast expanse of outdoor recreation opportunity and wildlife sanctuary is now under attack by outfitters and others who say the trail system within the wilderness area is a mess and the entire ecosystem should be declared a Natural Resource Disaster Area. Leading the charge is the Backcountry Horsemen of Idaho.
Two Idaho legislators, Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, and Rep. Marcus Gibbs, R-Grace, have sponsored a joint resolution in the Idaho House that would declare the area a disaster zone. It is a move to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages the U.S. Forest Service, to clean up the mess left by numerous wildfires, fallen timber and clogged trails.
Clearing those trails is no small feat. Zig-zagging their way through the wilderness area, there are 2,500 miles of trails.
Phil Ryan, a public lands coordinator for the Backcountry Horsemen, pointed out in a story in the Spokane Spokesman-Review that the Central Idaho Wilderness Act directs the agency to open trails annually.
The poor or non-existent maintenance of the wilderness area trail system also has sparked concern from Idaho Chapter of the Wilderness Society.
“It’s no secret the agency hasn’t been able to keep up with deadfall on trails and bridges washing out. Nobody is disputing that,” said Wilderness Society member Craig Gehrke, of Boise.
The Horsemen feel a disaster declaration from the legislature will stir federal action. The Wilderness Society fears it may be a political ploy to open up discussions about privatizing federal forest land — including wilderness areas.
Washed out foot bridges and trails that have become a maze of downed timber are very real problems. Access to millions of acres of pristine habitat by hikers and people on horseback has been restricted by the forces of nature.
Doing something about it has been restricted by the forces of economics.
Funding for the U.S. Forest Service has been on the decline since the Bush Administration. Back in 2003, Forest Service officials complained that they didn’t have any choice but to shift funds out of trail maintenance to try to cover expenses in other areas. Revenues from timber harvests on national forest land were dropping. Pressure to provide more services for those who use the national forests were climbing.
With diminished revenues, the Forest Service began to rely more heavily on volunteer efforts to maintain trail systems. Those volunteers in Idaho included the Backcountry Horsemen.
Volunteer efforts have been hampered by wilderness area restrictions which prohibit the use of chainsaws to clear fallen timber. Removing thousands of trees lying across hundreds of miles of trails in Central Idaho is no job for handsaws.
We agree that Idaho should expect the federal government to take responsibility for maintaining its large holdings in the Gem State. And it should take a hard look at reality and resources when it comes to keeping wilderness areas open to outdoor enthusiasts.
However, we also understand financial constraints. If the U.S. Congress wants to continue cutting federal programs, including the U.S. Forest Service, something will suffer.
And if the federal sequester goes into effect next month, even budgets for U.S. Forest Service campgrounds and visitor centers will be cut in half.
Idahoans and other Americans who visit federal forests in Idaho won’t have to venture into the wilderness to experience that disaster.