“Why are you including the White Clouds in your upcoming “50 Years of Wilderness” program? It's not wilderness.”
The White Cloud mountain range is definitely not designated wilderness and probably never will be. It came close several years ago, when Congressman Mike Simpson pushed a wilderness bill through the House of Representatives; but he couldn't get Senator Jim Risch to support him, so it died.
Now a new idea is taking hold — a national monument — and the smart money says a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument will happen, perhaps in 2015.
Why? Because all it takes to create a national monument is a signature from the President, thanks to the Antiquities Act of 1906.
American presidents have used the Antiquities Act more than 100 times, starting with Teddy Roosevelt, to protect places like the Grand Canyon and most recently, the Organ Pipe Desert Peaks National Monument of New Mexico.
Back then the cool solution, agreed to by Senator Frank Church, was a “National Recreation Area.” And for many Idahoans, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (the SNRA), administered by the Forest Service, has been a reasonable success.
But look to the leaders of the Idaho Conservation League on this one. They worked closely with Congressman Simpson on his wilderness proposal but have decided that nothing will get through Congress any time soon. So they have pivoted toward the national monument idea, and they seem to have the ear of this president.
The persistent argument one hears in favor of a national monument is that it will somehow protect the White Clouds better than the current arrangement. Let's hope so, because calling something a ‘national monument’ will likely attract even more visitors.
The ICL understands that official wilderness is a tough sell for today's mountain bikers who can’t ride in designated wilderness. Our recent trip into the White Clouds found quite a few mountain bikers on the 10,400 foot Castle Divide trail. In fact, we saw more mountain bikers than hikers on that trail!
Interestingly, none of the ones we talked with favored either wilderness or a national monument. They liked the status quo. But at least a national monument concept doesn’t exclude mountain bikers outright.
Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, put it this way: “The Boulder-White Clouds have extraordinary wilderness values and world-class recreational access. We are working together to protect both.”
The argument against a national monument? Bob Hayes, a founding member of the prestigious Sawtooth Society, puts it this way: “It's going to create confusion and conflict and invite litigation. It deprives those stakeholders of the opportunity to fully participate in a land-use decision that is of critical importance to them. It's going to upset the balance of the working relationship among people who have learned to adapt to each other and use the resource.”
Recently, I talked with an outfitter from the Challis area. He's convinced the national monument idea is primarily an attempt to buy out the ranchers along the East Fork of the Salmon River. There's a large part of that watershed that is currently not in the SNRA but would be in the new monument; the area is a stronghold for salmon and steelhead and other wildlife.
So, back to the question posed at the beginning of this post... why include the White Clouds in a program on ‘50 Years of Wilderness’?
I guess because the White Clouds have been in the thick of the wilderness debate for at least 30 years.
Because my generation hikes; this younger generation bikes.
Because what happens in the White Clouds may tell us something about the future of wilderness in America.
These are some of the questions I've been asked about my recent 10 day trek across the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho. My objective was to film for Outdoor Idaho the sights and sounds, the beauty and utter ruggedness of the second largest wilderness area in the lower 48.
By the way, my answer to the above questions was “no.” Actually, my worst trip problem was with eutamias amoenus. But, more about that later.
This is the 50th anniversary of the landmark Wilderness Act of 1964. It set aside special places across our nation “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
For this golden anniversary, Outdoor Idaho is focusing its lens on our state's seven designated wilderness areas in an unprecedented, one hour documentary, coming this December.
What drew me to this project was that I've always wanted to hike across the Frank. There is something about this place and its human history that captured my imagination. I have piloted several rafts down the fabled Middle Fork of the Salmon River and briefly visited Cabin Creek and the research center at Taylor Ranch. But there is much more to the Frank that I wanted to experience.
Last August, I retired as general manager for Idaho Public Television; so I had the time to both prepare and make this journey. Outdoor Idaho wanted to include a broad video profile of the Frank, a 2.4 million acre wilderness managed by the Forest Service, and I was interested in volunteering my time to the effort. Luckily, Jeff Tucker, director of content for Idaho Public Television, agreed to join me part-way down Big Creek River at Cabin Creek airstrip. A good thing, because I didn't relish the notion of a solo trek. Together, we tackled the challenge of capturing, on video, the sights and sounds of this immense and diverse landscape.
The Frank has intrigued me for decades. It is big and remote, with its deeply forested reaches on the west side, its crystal clear rivers of Big Creek, Monumental and the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and the near-mythical Bighorn Crags of the east side. These elements, combined with the region's rich human history — both native peoples and rough-neck miners, ranchers and loners — provide the backdrop to a place few people will ever experience.
My journey across the Frank began in mid-July at the western trailhead entry point near the landing strip at Big Creek, 50 bone-jarring, dirt-road miles due east of McCall, Idaho.
The route would follow Big Creek River due east, past several large recent landslides, past Monumental Creek, Cabin Creek and Taylor Ranch (the University of Idaho's wilderness research center), to the confluence with the legendary Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
The path then ascended the aptly named Waterfall Creek Trail more than 5,000 feet over 11 miles, into the remarkable Bighorn Crags mountains that border the east side of the Frank. Our destination was beautiful Ship Island Lake. All told, with side trips, the hike would be more than 85 miles, spread over ten days.
This hike, and the entire Outdoor Idaho project, required special permits from the Forest Service for our video cameras, even though we would go lightweight and carry all that we needed for the trip. This meant carrying backpacks weighing in at 45-plus pounds. Traditional (heavy) HD cameras and tripod were too much, so we outfitted ourselves with new generation, light weight, DSLR high definition cameras.
What was the journey like? Well, naturally you'll need to watch Outdoor Idaho this December to get the full story! But, I must tell you that I gained a deeper appreciation for this beautiful and ruggedly unforgiving country. Where the Sawtooth Mountains are easily accessible via paved state highways with great signage, stores, accommodations and visitor centers, the Frank is a very different experience. It takes hours on unimproved, dirt roads just to reach a trailhead. There are no visitor centers at its entrances, and minimal signage is the norm. In the Sawtooth, you can easily hike to a lake in the morning and be back in time for afternoon beers, with time to spare. The Frank requires equal parts time and sweat, and maybe a little craziness to boot.
So back to my trip problem. Eutamias amoenus is the chipmunk, that sweet little critter that scurries around the campsites looking for stuff. Well, on the sixth night of the hike, Jeff and I camped at Birdbill Lake in the Bighorn Crags, elevation 8,330 feet. I went to bed early to escape the swarming mosquitoes. The next morning, I crawled out of my borrowed bivy sack (think minimal tent, more like a body bag) and I saw six holes in the foot of the bag, chewed overnight by the neighborhood chipmunk. Arghhh! What am I going to tell my friend?
But, if that was the worst that the trip threw at me, I feel fortunate. The Frank has always been a place that has challenged people to be better than they are. We humans come to this land seeking what it has to offer, but typically not for very long. For hundreds, maybe thousands of years, native peoples traveled here seasonally to hunt and fish its river sections, as well as visit the high lakes of the Crags. Miners sought their fortunes in the mountains. But most everyone would retreat to the low lands to escape the harsh winters. No year round towns sustained themselves for very long. The Frank was just too harsh, too remote and too darn hard to live in.
This is what drew me to hike across the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. I wanted to experience the incredible wilderness backdrop and retrace the steps of native peoples, pioneers and others. I wanted to embrace the challenge of capturing on video a place that few will ever visit.
I hope you can join us in December as we relive what for us was an epic journey. It will be coming to you only on Idaho Public Television.