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Outfitter Mike Scott has been the proprietor of White Cloud Outfitters since 1987. This interview was conducted in 2016, near the Hemingway-Boulders wilderness.
I keep hearing that Idaho is a little different from other states when it comes to managing the outfitting industry.
Idaho is different in several ways. First of all, we have an area system, where the State of Idaho has a licensing board which regulates our industry, licenses us to specific operating areas and to specific activities.
A lot of other states don't have that; it's either done by the forest themselves, the land managing agencies, or the Fish and Game. But in our State we have a five member licensing board which is made up of three outfitters, a member of the Fish and Game and a member of the public, which promulgate rules and enforce and make policy; so it's quite a bit different than other states.
We kind of are the envy of a lot of states because we do have an area system, where in a lot of other states there could be eight or nine outfitters permitted in one particular area.
So what exactly is the area you're licensed for?
We're licensed for the White Clouds in parts of the new wilderness, and we've been operating here for 28 years now on the SNRA and probably 70% of our business is done here in the White Clouds. What it means to me? It means a lot to me, this kind of feels like home when you're in here. It doesn't feel like a job, it doesn't feel like work.
This place connects us to more than just Idaho; it connects to the whole Columbia River System, to the oceans. When you stop and think about that, when you think about the big picture of where we operate and where we live, it is important that this country's taken care of and treated in a way that it can benefit future generations and keep all of our systems intact.
What's a typical outfitting day like for you in summer?
This time of year a typical day is getting up real early, getting your horses ready, your tack ready, driving to trailheads. We're either packing people's gear in to different destinations and dropping it off, or we're actually doing catered trips with them where we go into our base camp in the White Clouds and do extended trips with them. Or our roving trips, where we take people to different destinations and keep progressing with our horses.
But this time of year, it's kind of daylight to dark every day, we're doing something; something's got to be accomplished every day.
You've been in this business long enough to see some changes.
There has been a change; our guests' needs have changed over time. We used to see people that would come on extended trips for seven, eight, nine day pack trips. You don't see that anymore.
People want to experience a lot of different things. They want to come to an area and maybe float the river for a day, and maybe do an overnight pack trip. And the internet has really changed in how people communicate with us and how they find us. Before the internet, of course, you went to a lot of sport shows and that sort of thing to try to build up a client base. But now you can pretty much do it with the internet and social media and those types of things.
So you're packing in our supplies into the new Hemingway-Boulders wilderness. What's so special about this area?
We're going to be going up West Pass towards like the North Fork of the Big Wood, that big watershed. We're going to see a lot of remote country that's not visited by a lot of people.
There's no high mountain lakes in here, which has a tendency to make for less travel on the trails. We could see some wildlife, but the time of day we're moving probably most of the animals will be lying down, but we could see mountain goats on the high peaks. But probably what makes this country unique is just the wildness of it and obviously that was recognized by Congress putting into wilderness.
What difference do you think it will make to this part of the country, that it's now official wilderness?
This trail that we'll go on today is non-motorized, so we'll have to take a crosscut with us; and any trees in the way they'll have to be removed by hand tools. It really didn't affect any motorized use; all the motorized use in the White Clouds remained intact with the legislation that was passed. It did restrict mountain bikes on a few trails, and we've yet to see how it all plays out in the management plan; that's just now starting to take place; and so within the next couple of years we will see how our camps will be managed; that's still an unknown.
A little scary maybe?
A lot, yeah.
Will the wilderness designation bring in more people?
You know, it's a little early to tell right now, but it seems like the interest for us this year is up. We're getting more phone calls for people that want to be taken in and dropped off to different destinations, and the phone calls were a lot earlier; they were way back in the winter, where typically people kind of wait till spring. It's kind of a last minute thing, and two weeks before they want to come, they call you up, “Hey can you take us in to a destination?&rdquo This year it seemed like people planned it out, and it seems like that we had more requests this year for our services.
So it might be a silver lining?
Yes and no, the old “love it to death” syndrome, but yeah, it's unknown to me. The biggest increase in use that we were seeing up until the Wilderness Legislation that was passed last year was the mountain bike use. That was probably the biggest increase in the use that we were seeing in here.
And now that's gone?
Not necessarily, they can still go on all the motorized trails. So they didn't lose but a very, very few trails, maybe 40-50 miles of trails.
I'm fascinated by the future of outfitting in Idaho and where it might be headed. What's it going to look like in ten years?
Well, the demand for outfitting is definitely here. There is a huge demand for our services, but how it all plays out with our agency partners... because we talked about how people are changing, their needs are changing, what they want to do, how they want to participate in accessing the backcountry or our rivers is different from what it was 15 years ago.
So it's going to be critical that our agency partners are able to evolve with us 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.
So, if the Chief of the Forest Service were standing here, what would you tell him?
I would tell him that, right now, there is a huge disconnect within the forest. And what I mean by that is, their frontline people that are taking these positions as rangers, they're staying there two and three years and moving on. They don't have an investment in the community; they didn't come up, you might say, through the ranks on that ranger district and then become a District Ranger. They come from a different place; so when they get here, it's a stepping stone to somewhere else for them. So they don't have community involvement; and, quite honestly, it's not really a partnership anymore. The partnership thing has faded away, and hopefully we can get back to that because that's going to be essential for us to continue into the future of outfitting.
And what about this younger generation? How do we connect with them?
When you and I grew up, it was a fight to get us inside the house; we didn't have all the gadgets that kids have today that keep ‘em inside. So, yeah, I think our industry can play a huge role in getting kids in the outdoors and getting them to experience the backcountry and our rivers, and just everything that Idaho has to offer.
We're the ones that have the knowledge and the expertise to access the backcountry and our rivers and, and that's going to be critical into the future because no one else is doing these things; no one else knows how to use the hand tools to clear the trails, how to pack horses. That's not being taught in schools. River rescues, I know our river outfitters are really big into that. We're the ones that hold the keys to that knowledge.