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Ed Cannady Interview

Ed CannadyEd Cannady has been with the Sawtooth NRA for more than twenty years. He was a wilderness ranger for nine years and is now the backcountry manager for the Sawtooth NRA. Bruce Reichert conducted this interview in the summer of 2012.

Have you seen a lot of changes on the Sawtooth NRA?
I've seen changes, but I've seen a lot of constants, too. The changes come in the form of budgets — sometimes we're flush, sometimes we're not. Right now we're not. And we understand that when we have a trillion dollar budget deficit every year, we're just not going to be flush. So we have to work a lot harder now, writing grant proposals, to get money to maintain the trails and build new trails and to continue to try to provide that world-class recreational opportunity that the Sawtooth National Recreation Area should provide.

The constants have been the landscape, of course. These mountains stand outside of time as we know it, because they don't change. The trees change; a lot of them have died in the past 15 years; but they come back. And it's amazing, too, how constant my affection for the mountains is. It has never varied from that first moment I saw them in June of 1971 to today. I still get just giddy every time I drive into the Sawtooth Valley; and I know so many people who have the same experience.

Some folks have called this area the heart of Idaho.
I would agree with that. Heart is a good analogy. I think the stomach is a good analogy, if you'll allow me that, because it's where the people of Idaho and across the nation come to feed their hungry souls. People who want more than what they experience in the cities or towns. And they come here to re-realize things that maybe they lost; and this place has certainly played that role for me.

So I like the heart because of the headwaters of five major rivers; we provide the lifeblood for the rest of the state. But it's really where people can come to feed their souls and meet those needs that maybe they didn't even realize they had, and to reconnect to the natural world. It's a lot easier, I think, in a place like this, where the drama is in your face, and the beauty and peace and serenity are in your face; and you can realize it a lot more easily; and hopefully people come here and have that experience and take that home with them, and realize that where they live may not be as dramatically beautiful as the Sawtooths or the White Clouds, but they can have the same kind of experience there if they just slow their pace and think about it in a different way. So I'm hoping we provide that opportunity for people.

"I think you lose a lot of the opportunity to have that really basic, almost primordial, connection with a place that you can here. I think you lose that in a lot of national parks. You go there to look. You come here to really truly experience."Compare this national recreation area to the national parks that you visit.
I liken the Sawtooth National Recreation Area to a national park; only, people get to be part of the ecosystem. You can cut firewood, you can graze cows, you can do things you couldn't do in a national park. You can hunt elk and deer, and you can fish. So we have that challenge of balancing that type of extractive use with preserving the scenic, natural, historic, pastoral, and fish and wildlife values that the Act requires of us. I think it is really important to allow people that connection with the land, that shooting an elk and taking it home and eating on it all winter allows you to do. It's a connection that is lost a lot in modern society. So I think it is important to be able to maintain that.

Over the 40 years, how closely has the Sawtooth NRA hewed to the original concept written into the law?
I really think we've managed to make at least a valiant effort at meeting the intent of the law. It's plain that when you drive through the Sawtooth valley and the Stanley Basin you don't see all the trophy homes that you do in the Wood River valley. Not that there is anything wrong with the development that has happened there; It's just very different, and it's a very different environment. In the Sawtooth valley you drive through and, aside from the paved road, it could still be 1910. So I think we've done a pretty good job of maintaining that. We take the scenic quality area very seriously.

We try really hard to preserve the fish and wildlife values because we do have the chinook and sockeye salmon that still come here; and their numbers are up and down depending on a lot of other factors; but we work really hard to provide them with optimal spawning conditions. It's the longest salmon run in the world —over 900 miles — and we take that very seriously. And I think we do a pretty good job of balancing use of the river with the fish being able to spawn, unmolested. So I think we've adhered pretty closely.

Chinook salmon above a rocky riverbed [Credit: Ed Cannady]Where I think the greatest challenge lies is in the future. When Public Law 92-400, which designated the National Recreation Area, passed, it had a minimum square footage for houses. The worry then was shanty towns and shacks. That was what was happening at Obsidian. But now, of course, it's just the opposite problem — the monster homes that people want to build. So we've made that huge dramatic swing from people having small quarter lots and building 500 to 600 square foot structures on it, to building 10,000 square foot monstrosities. That's a little harder, because we buy the conservation easements; we have fairly limited enforcement authority, so we do the best we can to control that. And most people who move to this area get that, and they don't want to destroy the character of the area. But occasionally you have people who just want to build that monument to themselves, and it's really hard to stop, but we fight really hard to do that, and I think we've done a pretty good job of maintaining the character, the western ranching atmosphere that we shoot for.

What efforts do you make for the salmon?
I still really believe — and I think a lot of other people a lot smarter than me believe — that the biggest problem with salmon coming home to the Sawtooths doesn't lie in the Sawtooths. It lies downstream, and we have no control over that. So I don't know that a national park would have given us any more footing to gain any kind of change in those downriver conditions. We work really hard, and my river outfitters are gallant, hard working people, and I don't say that lightly. I really believe it, and they embrace the salmon. I mean, they float on the Salmon River, for goodness sake, and they want their clients to understand and appreciate those fish as much as they do. But we impose a lot of conditions on them, to allow them to float while the salmon are spawning, and they are very cooperative. They do a great job. But they bear a huge share of the burden that we impose, trying to give salmon that optimal spawning opportunity; and they do it well, and people are interested in the salmon.

It is so easy to forget how magnificent those fish are. When you watch a female dig a nest in the gravel of the Salmon River, she's going to lay her eggs there, and the male is going to fertilize them, and the next spring those fry are going to emerge from the gravel and spend a year maturing to the point that they can get carried to the Pacific ocean, tail first by the spring run-off, and spend three years in the ocean, maybe swim as far as Japan and come back and swim upstream 900 miles. A Herculean effort that no human could do, to return to the same spot, to repeat the cycle. It's just one of the most amazing stories in nature, as far as I'm concerned.

So for us and for me, specifically, the privilege of doing what we can to give those fish the opportunity to spawn successfully is amazing. Just knowing that we are doing that for those fish is one of the most gratifying parts of my job.

"The people who really want to see wilderness for the White Clouds have very specific reasons for wanting that, and the people who don't want to see wilderness have very specific reasons for not wanting it, and I think they are both valid."What's your take on whether this area would get more funding if it were managed by the National Park Service?
We would always like to have a bigger budget. We would always like to have more money. I'm not convinced that national parks get the kind of funding that they need all the time, because I go to Yellowstone and the roads are horrible, and the facilities are older and worse shape than ours often — and I love Yellowstone. They have their problems with maintenance, as well. What you would lose making that trade-off is the opportunities I spoke of earlier — hunting, fishing, firewood gathering, being a part of the landscape here. In national parks you just don't get to do it. I feel really connected to Yellowstone and Grand Teton because I like those places a lot; but not like I do here. I am part of this place. I go there to be amazed at things I don't get to see every day because their animal populations aren't hunted. I go here, and I'm amazed by those opportunities, like the time I had a mountain goat walk within 5 yards of me. And it's a wild animal. It's not a park animal, and that's a very different experience. I've had the same experience with black bears — not five yards, but really close. They are hunted populations, they are truly wild animals, so it's an even bigger thrill for me when it happens here.

I think you lose a lot of the opportunity to have that really basic, almost primordial, connection with a place that you can here. I think you lose that in a lot of national parks. You go there to look. You come here to really truly experience.

What does the Sawtooth Wilderness provide the Sawtooth NRA?
The Sawtooth wilderness was designated as wilderness in 1972 with the passage of Public Law 92-400. It was the Sawtooth Primitive Area prior to that. Of course, what the Forest Service can do regulatorily, it can un-do regulatorily, so the need for permanent protection was acute. It provides the assurance that you can go to a place and not experience the mechanized world. The essence of wilderness is the opportunity to have a primitive and unconfined recreation opportunity. No motorized or mechanized transport. So you are basically going back to a much simpler time.

How does it compare with other Idaho wilderness areas?
That's a tough question for me, because I will never claim to be unbiased. But I think the Sawtooth wilderness stacks up with any wilderness in the entire U.S., because we have all the classic mountain qualities: vertiginous peaks, great vertical relief, and 500 alpine lakes, and mountain goats. And I think mountain goats are our signature terrestrial species — salmon being our signature aquatic species — but mountain goats are such amazing animals, and they occur in significant numbers in the Sawtooths and in the White Clouds and Boulders.

I think we have all the classic qualities that people think of when they think of wilderness: great opportunities for solitude and deep solitude. You can go to the front country or the front range lakes — Alice Lake, the Sawtooth lakes — and have a good experience and not see many people. And to some people, that is real solitude. But to others like myself, I like having the opportunity to go into the deep back country where I know I'm not going to see anyone else, and just have that for days if I wanted, for the entire season if I wanted. It's unlikely I would see anyone else for an entire season. And that is really important to a lot of people. I think that the White Clouds and the Boulders provide that same opportunity. It means it costs you more in terms of calories because they are harder to get to, and that's why there aren't a lot of people there, but the opportunity there is that deep solitude that we so rarely find.

Why has it been so difficult to secure wilderness in the White Clouds?
It started off with the minerals that occurred there; and the idea was to study it for its potential as wilderness and that was in the bill in Public Law 92-400; but then hikers love the place, but so do other users. Motorized users love the place, and that use has grown up over the years, and they value the experience they have there — the motorized users and the mountain bikers. They are very jealous of it, and they don't want to give it up easily. So the people who really want to see wilderness for the White Clouds have very specific reasons for wanting that, and the people who don't want to see wilderness have very specific reasons for not wanting it, and I think they are both valid. I'm partial to wilderness myself, but the way we manage it currently is so that, hopefully, all users can have really great world-class opportunities in those mountains.

Wide angle photo of the Sawtooths [Credit: Ed Cannady]What is your personal connection with the White Clouds?
They are maybe my favorite part of the landscape here. I've probably over the years spent more time in the Sawtooths, but I've spent a lot of time in the White Clouds, and they're kind of the forgotten mountains. The Boulder Mountains rise abruptly from the Wood River valley and they're in your face as you're driving north of Ketchum. The Sawtooths are very much in your face as you drive in the Sawtooth valley and the town of Stanley. But the White Clouds are kind of hidden behind those glorious foothills, and you can see them from the highway in just a couple of places, and then if you know where to look.

It's a different geology, different substrate, a lot more limestone, richer in nutrients, and so the fish are bigger, the meadows are more verdant and great aspens stands and not quite as austere as the Sawtooth wilderness. So it's a different experience there, but it provides the same experience as the wilderness with that richness that you don't have in the wilderness. And Castle Peak. What more can you say that wasn't said in Life Magazine in 1970 and so many other publications. Castle is maybe the most iconic peak in the state, but it's invisible, unless you spend the effort to go into the heart of the White Clouds. It's where my ashes will be spread, hopefully. It's my favorite piece of rock in the whole world. It's just this big, glorious chunk of rock that grabbed my heart and has held it ever since. And a lot of other people feel the same way, I know. And it looks different from every angle. It will persist in Idaho's imagination for as long as it stands.

So what does the future hold for the Sawtooth NRA?
I see a really bright future. I think the people of Idaho are connected enough to this place they're going to make sure it is protected. They are not going to let us let down our guard and all the work that those people did 40 years ago — the men and women who fought so hard to protect this place — they're not going to let that go away. I really truly believe we are the crown jewel of the state. And I think people look at us that way. I experience it every year when I talk to campers and backpackers who have been coming here every year. They came here with their fathers, their grandfathers and grandmothers, and that connection runs really deep, and I don't think the people of Idaho are going to let it be wasted.

I think that it is important enough to this state that we remain what we've always been, that they will make sure that we meet the intent of the Act. That doesn't mean there won't be challenges; there will be, but I think the people of the State of Idaho have our backs.