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Outfitter Steve Burson is president of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. He and his wife Lorrie are owners and operators of Storm Creek Outfitters, with guiding rights in parts of the Selway-Bitterroot and the Frank Church Wilderness. This interview was conducted in 2016.
What are your duties as president of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association?
My duties are to run board meetings. We have an executive director that does the day to day work in the office, along with an excellent office manager, so my duties are more trying to make sure we pull the organization together. We're organized by different sections, so there's a hunting section, a river section, and recreation. And I try to pull meetings together and come up with what our association objectives would be.
It's a trade organization, and we represent the business interest for the Idaho Outfitting Association. It's one of the larger economic industries in the state, so it's fairly significant. The IOGA works on Idaho state legislative issues and national levels through our national organization, American Outdoors.
Do you like being an outfitter?
I love it. For one thing, I love the wilderness. I used to have an office job, and my view from this office, as you can see, is a lot better than my old office!
I love sharing this wilderness with people; that's the main thing, whether it's people that haven't been west of the Mississippi or people that have been here for years who just want a different kind of experience. You meet a tremendous amount of very, very interesting people, so it's quite rewarding.
And do you like being the president of the IOGA?
A friend of mine kind of roped me into that deal, but I do. It's a great organization. My responsibilities are primarily working with a great team.
The organization has three main sections: the hunt section, river section, and recreation, along with a guide section. And we promote professionalism in Idaho guides. And we work together to come up with objectives for the organization, and then work with the different sections to accomplish our goals.
How would you assess the status of the outfitting industry in Idaho these days?
The industry right now is rebounding. It was pretty tough in '09 when the recession hit; especially the land based side of the business had a lot of issues financially. You know, they're very driven by access into the wilderness and trails, so that's always an issue.
But the economy is coming back, people are reaching out for more adventure vacations. And I think, as a whole, we're doing much better than we were five years ago. You know, the game in the state's doing very well right now. Fish and game we work very closely with, is doing a great job trying to manage the game. So, yeah, I think the next five to ten years look very good.
Of course, we are the whitewater state, and the river business is going just gangbusters.
How does the IOGA compare to the other states in the West?
Idaho Outfitters & Guides Association is the oldest association in the United States; it's over 60 years old right now. So in the early days, the outfitters came together to try to get the state organized, which they were successful.
And then ten years later they worked with the governor to establish the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board. So as far as the state having control in running the outfitting industry, as a professional industry, it's the oldest and probably most controlled industry within the outfitting industry in the states.
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. So I think, from a client's perspective, we're probably more regulated and more organized and do more professional trips than any other state.
We've got more public ground, so you've got access to almost 80 percent of the state of Idaho, so that, in itself, creates a tremendous opportunity.
In Idaho we have unique operating areas, so within this area of mine, I'm the only commercial operator here. When I go into an area, I don't have to worry about a lot of other people in there trying to compete for the same resource. So, yeah, it just makes it a wonderful opportunity compared to some of our neighboring states.
What do you see as the two or three major issues that outfitters, as a group, face in the coming years?
A couple of large ones. For the land based operators it's primarily access, just trying to get into the backcountry. Nationwide, we have a trails crisis. Within central Idaho it's considerably worse. So the amount of effort that it takes to keep these trails open, especially in the light of the recent fires, and so forth, is a tremendous amount of work and a safety issue.
Another one is some of the native peoples want to, maybe, shut down some of the access on the Middle Fork, and restrict public access. So that's one thing we'd like to work with people and become, you know, excellent at not only providing a trip, but also in interpretive skills and trying to really highlight what the history of Idaho is, and then do that in a very, very safe and leave no trace environment.
So talk to us about this Glamping thing you've got going.
The glamping program was my wife's idea; she came up with it, and I think it's been very successful. We're one of the first people to operate in this area, and I still think we're the only ones operating in a wilderness.
There's a big segment of the population that really doesn't want to sleep on a Therm a Rest anymore, but they still would love to be out in the wilderness and do horse rides and day trips. If we do overnight pack trips, and so forth, we can then come back to a nice meal and a very comfortable camp and clean up. And it's just a lot of fun. I mean, you get to get up, have a great breakfast, eat a lot of good food, drink some good wine. It's enjoyable to do. We meet a whole different set of guests than you would in fall season, so it's just a lot of fun.
And the summer season, typically, has been very difficult in the outfitting industry. A lot of people won't do the long term pack trips, like we used to, through the Bob and through the Frank. A lot of that is because of the trails; you just don't have the access that you can do it. So it's been a great add on or segment to our business, and a lot of fun.
What's your favorite part about glamping?
It's the people. Just a lot of conversation. You have more time. The food's excellent and I like to eat and have a glass of wine. If it's really hot, then I'll go fishing, and I'll let the other guides take people on horse rides and things like that. So being the boss, you can pick and choose the activities you want to do for the day. You get to come up here on a beautiful evening, that kind of thing. So, yeah, I like all the activities.
Mostly, you have to be in this business because you like people, and have some great discussions and things. And you get to show them places that they had no idea this kind of place was in the United States.
We'll get a lot of people who haven't even camped before, have never been to a wilderness. I mean it's their wilderness, and they don't even know what's out here. And it's very amazing to watch; if we have someone for a three or four day trip, the change in them from the first day to the fourth day, and just the way they enjoy it and appreciate it and learn a tremendous amount while they're out here, I mean, people that have been in New York City for their entire life. And we get some honeymooners that want to do the western experience, and that's a lot of fun.
Because people are totally disconnected out here.
Oh, yeah, and they've never been in their life! Some of them almost start to panic the first couple of days, and then they can relax and look at the stars and enjoy it. So, yeah, the blood pressure, if you could measure it from the first day to the last day, is a lot different.
What are some of the key activities you do with your guests?
The two main activities are fishing and trail riding. We do a lot of photography and lookout tours. We'll do trekking trips if people like to hike but don't want to carry a lot of weight. We do some overnight stuff and then come back; so you'll glamp one night in our main camp and then spend the night in the backcountry. We do pack trips over the mountains over there, and there's some really nice lakes at the top, and go fishing. We can do a pack trip from Paradise into Darby, Montana; it's called “over the top. ” That's really fun. So a lot of different stuff.
So all this behind you is your permitted area?
BURSON: Yeah, pretty much. It takes about five days to ride across it, if the trails are cleared. It's about 800 square miles, so it's a large area. It's plenty of ground.
Describe your camp here at Paradise.
The camp at Paradise is at the end of the road. It actually is at Paradise, Idaho. There's a campground there, and it's also the boat launch for the Selway River. So that's the access. One of the key reasons that people would go to the end of the road is to launch. It is the gem of Idaho backcountry rivers.
And so at the actual end of the road, we have a camp. And it's been there about 70 years. When we acquired the camp, the main footprint was the same, but we've redone all the cabins and the kitchen tents. And my wife loves to decorate, so she's done a lot of work on that to make it a nice place to stay. Great facilities, hot and cold running water, which is, you know, crazy for the wilderness.
Within that camp we have horse corals and a packing deck, which I think is the last packing deck within the state of Idaho. They used to be prevalent, very historic. It's a large tent where you can bring a string of eight mules and load them under a tent, and a deck that's easy to take care of all the cargo and gear and stuff like that.
One of the main things I like about the camp is, if we're doing any kind of backcountry work and mule packing, we have a packing deck. And that's a large tent with an alleyway you can bring a string of mules in, a deck on it where you can back pickup trucks up to it and unload all the gear. And then a place to we call it “wrap up” or “manny,” take all the gear and wrap that up, ready to load it on a mule. With a scale built in, we can weigh the loads. And it makes it much easier to load a string of mules.
The Forest Service used to have those all over the backcountry, but most of those facilities are gone today.
And you have a generator, so you have electricity. Why are you allowed to have that in the wilderness?
There's corridors through the wilderness, and they'll be exceptions; the road, for example, is a corridor, and generally it's 150 feet each side of the road.
The campgrounds back here -- the public campgrounds and outfitted camps -- there is an exclusion on the regulations that allow for you to drive there. So you can have vehicle access. If there's trees on the road, you can cut those with a chainsaw. That's part of the access. If they couldn't maintain the road with some sort of equipment, it would be a trail, and nobody could drive up to the lookout; fighting fire was a key reason,that it was done originally. And it's still used a lot by both the public and the Forest Service.
So you can charge up your cameras and cell phones. Most hunters don't expect that at camp. And a lot of people when they get there, they're pretty surprised that that facility could exist within the wilderness; so we're very fortunate to be able to have that. And we work with the Forest Service very closely to make sure we keep it within all the standards and things that they like and keep a good camp so we can continue to enjoy that.