Underwriting provided by:
The Laura Moore Cunningham
Foundation

Restoring Rivers

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We humans take great delight in making rivers do our bidding. Damming them. Dividing them. Straightening them. Running them through culverts, floodgates and concrete barriers. Changing their temperature, their flow and even the organisms that inhabit them. Often it works to our advantage, especially in the arid west. But Mother Nature does bat last and probably always will.

"It's a classic case of human hubris to think we can control a system as large and complicated as a river system," says Kevin Marsh, Idaho State University history professor.

Fifty years ago we began saying 'whoa' to wholesale development of rivers. The 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act offered significant protections for Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Clearwater, the Selway and the Lochsa.

But those rivers, and several other wild and scenic rivers, are only a fraction of the more than 100,000 miles of waterways coursing through the state. Now the reality of our past actions is causing us to consider the future of our watersheds and motivating us to try other means of working with nature instead of against it.

"It's humbling to work in an environment where you find out you're not in charge," says Cassi Wood, Trout Unlimited Central Idaho project specialist.

Yankee Fork of the Salmon River near Stanley, Idaho. Courtesy: Kris Millgate
Yankee Fork of the Salmon River near Stanley, Idaho. Courtesy: Kris Millgate

The current is changing in places like the Yankee Fork, the Blackfoot River and Curlew National Grassland. The panhandle's Kootenai River and even in the cement-strapped Portneuf River of Pocatello.

"We just can't keep doing things the same old way," says Matt Woodard, Trout Unlimited Blackfoot River Project Manager. "I think we need to embrace some change."

The change is underway with more flowing in future years as the Gem State soaks up the concept of letting rivers run rather than strapping them down. `"We're in a time period now that maybe we don't always want to control water," says Kevin Marsh, Idaho State Unversity history professor. "Maybe water has some natural functions that are quite valuable to us."

Agriculture and industry never take a back seat, but they're making room for resource restoration in the front seat.

"It's extremely rewarding when you get in there and say, 'Hey, we're now making a difference,'" says Louis Wasniewski, Caribou-Targhee National Forest forest hydrologist. "Getting in there, restoring a stream and bringing it back to life. It's just an incredible thing."

Rock piles are what's left after a river is turned upside down for gold. Courtesy: Kris Millgate
Rock piles are what's left after a river is turned upside down for gold. Courtesy: Kris Millgate

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