Wild rivers are far more than ecological treasures; they’re staples in Idaho’s recreation, real estate and tourism economies as well.
That’s one of several key take-home messages from a panel discussion in Moscow, Idaho, this week where a handful of Idaho’s top wild river experts gathered to discuss the fiftieth anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which was enacted in October 1968.
The panel included IRU Executive Director Kevin Lewis, Advocates for the West Board President Linwood Laughey, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests Wild and Scenic Program Manager Chris Noyes and Middle Fork Outfitters Association President Dustin Aherin. The panel was hosted by the University of Idaho College of Law in Moscow.
After 50 years of Wild and Scenic Rivers management in the United States, it’s a good time to look back to see what the legislation has accomplished for wild rivers nationally, as well as in Idaho, the panelists said.
“The purpose of the act was to provide some balance to the frenzy of building dams that lasted from the Great Depression and went into the early 1970s,” said Lewis, who leads the 3,500-member IRU and has been working on Wild and Scenic Rivers issues for more than two decades. “Dams were often viewed as jobs programs to help pull us out of the Depression.”
Lewis said dams were built for power production, irrigation “and sometimes with very little justification at all.”
“Finally folks realized we needed more balance, and this is what ultimately led to designation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act,” Lewis said.
There are several steps that lead to designation of a river as Wild and Scenic. It must first be found “Eligible,” then “Suitable,” and finally with an act of Congress can be added to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System. In Idaho, eligibility and suitability are usually determined by federal land management agencies.
Laughey has owned a home for 46 years along the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River, one of three rivers in Idaho designated Wild and Scenic in 1968 when the act was passed. The Forest Service eventually purchased scenic easements on his property and others to preserve Wild and Scenic values in the entire river canyon.
“In 46 years I’ve never had any problem as far as scenic easements go,” he said. “When the scenic easements first started hitting the Middle Fork our neighbors up on the Camas Prairie told us we needed to realize our land would be worthless. Today the most valuable property in Idaho County is on the Wild and Scenic River corridor.”
Aherin said the act’s contribution to Idaho’s economy is easily visible in his work as well. He said there are 26 commercial outfitters that operate on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, another of the original rivers protected in 1968.
“In three months each summer, river trips bring in between $6.7 million and $11.7 million to Lemhi and Custer counties,” he said. “That’s the kind of money that keeps small, rural communities alive.”
Banner photo of the Wild and Scenic Lochsa River by Kevin Lewis