Whitewater rafts and jet boats were lined up outside the Statehouse as river users protested a Forest Service plan to sharply reduce how many people are allowed on the Middle Fork and main Salmon River through central Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
About 100 people turned out for a rally on the Capitol steps Saturday, including leaders of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, the Idaho Whitewater Association, Western Whitewater Association and Idaho Rivers United.
They carried signs saying “The Frank Ain’t Broke … Don’t Fix It!” and “Save Our Wilderness From the Purists” while listening to a Democratic state senator and a Republican state representative lambaste the Forest Service’s draft environmental impact statement for managing the rivers.
The agency has proposed cutting back river use by 50 percent on the Middle Fork and 30 percent on the main Salmon through the wilderness. It also has proposed reducing the number of days people can be on the river.
The Forest Service said the reductions are necessary to preserve solitude within the wilderness, not to protect its resources. But outfitters say the proposal will force them to double their rates, and it has drawn together a coalition of opponents often at odds over issues of river use - float boaters and motor boaters, and advocates of both wilderness and multiple use.
State Sen. Clint Stennett said the Forest Service has been unable to support their position to the Legislature. “The public says there’s nothing wrong. The public says, ‘We like it the way it is,”’ the Ketchum Democrat said. “If it isn’t broke, why are we trying to fix it?”
All four members of Idaho’s congressional delegation also have called on the Forest Service to seek a solution to the controversy by extending a comment period and postponing hearings scheduled through March.
And Bethine Church, the widow of Democratic U.S. Sen. Frank Church, for whom the 2.3 million-acre wilderness area is named, has used her husband’s own words to challenge the Forest Service plan.
About 19,000 people a year have floated the Middle Fork and main Salmon rivers under a limited-entry quota system. But Forest Service officials say there are too many boaters on the river at once. Their proposed cuts would not go into effect until at least 1999.