Bill Bernt on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Courtesy of Stephanie Bernt Ellis
That was 211 years ago. Since then outfitting and guiding has become a cherished Idaho tradition. That's because outfitters and guides have the skills and knowledge to help urban folks access the state's wild places. In fact, each year nearly 200,000 people use the services of Idaho's outfitting industry. That’s a huge number, one that translates into $100 million dollars to the Idaho economy.
When I was first presented that number by the Idaho Outfitters & Guides Association, I had my doubts. But put into the bigger picture of an Idaho economy hovering around $65 billion of goods and services, $100 million does make sense.
And the nice thing is that this outfitting business really benefits rural communities, where most of Idaho's outfitters reside.
“It's the oldest and probably the most controlled industry,” said Steve Burson of Storm Creek Outfitters, the current president of the IOGA. “Most other states don't have that much control, so it's a free-for-all within the industry and with some of the clients. We're probably more regulated and more organized and do more professional trips than any other state.”
But, like so many businesses dependent upon discretionary income and catering to the whims of the public, you get a sense that the outfitting industry could be in for some rocky times. For one thing, every major economic downturn seems to severely impact outfitters. I guess that trip-of-a-lifetime can always wait a year or two if the money is tight.
Outfitters like to see themselves as partners with the Forest Service and the BLM; these agencies are the caretakers of most of Idaho's public lands, and outfitters must follow their rules.
“It's going to be critical that our agency partners are able to evolve with us,” says Mike Scott of White Cloud Outfitters, “because in order for us to stay on the cutting edge, there are going to be certain needs that we're going to have; and hopefully we can work through those needs.”
But I'm not so sure that these land managers always see outfitters as their partners. We kept hearing that the communication between outfitter and forest ranger, for example, could use an overhaul. Let's hope this happens, but the tendency for land managers to move every 2-3 years to another forest doesn't bode well for that partnership.
When the Outdoor Idaho crew visited Campbell's Ferry this summer, here's what Doug had to say about outfitting:
“I had a woman once tell me that she got out of her tent in the middle of the night and looked up at the canopy of stars over her head, and her soul expanded. And that soul-expanding experience goes home with people and allows them to be the champions for wild places in the future.
“So keeping alive that constituency and support of wild places, that's our biggest challenge, and that's what needs to be our biggest role.”
Now that’s a mission statement most of us can get behind!
Campbell's Ferry, on the Main Salmon River. photo by Peter Morrill