WILDERNESS — Horse packers fed up with the lack of trail maintenance and the frequency of wildfire in Idaho’s largest wilderness area are asking legislators to declare it a natural resource disaster area. The Idaho Legislature is likely to discuss a resolution on this issue on Thursday, reports Eric Barker of the Lewiston Tribune.
House Joint Memorial No. 1 seeks disaster status for the pristine Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. Sponsored by Rep. Lenore Barrett of Challis and Rep. Marcus Gibbs of Grace — and authored by the Salmon Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Idaho — the resolution represents a shot across the bow of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the 2.3 million-acre area in the mountainous heart of the state.
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For years the group has been asking district rangers, forest supervisors and regional foresters to increase trail work in the wilderness area.
Now, members are hoping to get the attention of Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
“We came to the conclusion we have been working on the wrong end of the government mule, that we somehow need to get the head’s attention and a joint memorial from the Idaho Legislature would be a good way to start,”
said John Burns, a retired forest supervisor from Carmen and a former Idaho Fish and Game commissioner.
The agency has fallen behind schedule in its annual effort to open and maintain the 2,500 miles of trails that weave over and through the area’s tall granite peaks, lush meadows and steep river canyons.
Exacerbating the problem are wildfires that weaken trees and make them prone to falling in the years, and even decades, after the flames have died.
Those fires have been growing in size and intensity over the years and that trend, driven by climate change, is expected to continue. The agency is increasingly allowing fire to play a natural role in backcountry areas in an effort to control costs, improve wildlife habitat and place firefighting priority in more populated areas. That is making it even more difficult for the agency, with shrinking budgets, to keep up trail work across the country.
But Burns and Phil Ryan, a public lands coordinator for the group, point out that the Central Idaho Wilderness Act directs the agency to open trails annually.
“I feel fairly safe in saying this is the only wilderness area in the system that has that requirement,” Burns said.
The Back Country Horsemen of Idaho is a longtime ally and partner of the agency and annually works with it and other non-governmental organizations to do volunteer trail work to address the problem.
The Idaho Chapter of the Wilderness Society shares the group’s concern over the lack of trail work and funding.
“It’s no secret the agency hasn’t been able to keep up with deadfall on trails and bridges washing out. Nobody is disputing that,” said Craig Gehrke of The Wilderness Society at Boise.
But harsh language in the resolution that describes fire as destructive force instead of a natural process, and hints chain saw use might be needed to erase the trail maintenance backlog, is alienating him and other environmentalists.
“The Frank Church Wilderness has some of the best wildlife habitat, water quality and fish habitat in the Lower 48 states. Spreading wild misinformation about wilderness and designating one of Idaho’s icons a ‘disaster area’ is not the right way fix the trails,” Gehrke said. “By spreading myths about wilderness, this resolution could actually hurt important efforts to increase trails funding and broaden much-needed partnerships.”
Ryan said he is aware the resolution is ruffling feathers.
“I know Craig Gehrke thinks this is an anti-wilderness bill but I don’t look at it that way. I Look at it as getting the Forest Service to do their job. Maybe we can stir the pot enough to get it done.”
The House Resource and Conservation Committee will consider the resolution Thursday.