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Outdoor Idaho

Outdoor Idaho

The Frank

It's the largest forested wilderness in the lower 48, larger even than some states. Outside of Alaska, only Death Valley Wilderness is larger. So how did the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness become law?

We explore that question with a handful of folks who were there and who helped make it happen.

And we'll visit some of that 2.3 million acres, a landscape where nature now rolls the dice.

It's been 35 years since Congress established the River of No Return Wilderness. We take the pulse of this remote, magical vastness that many now call, simply, The Frank.

The Frank

We explore the largest forested wilderness in the lower 48.

[Copyright: Bruce Reichert]

Interviews


Dennis Baird is an author and conservationist who was also a member of the River of No Return Wilderness Council in the 1970's. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in 2015.

What was the thinking of the River of No Return Wilderness Council when it came to their 2.3 million acre proposal for wilderness?

There are two ways, I think, you can deal with natural resource politics. You can decide, well, we have a good plan and we'll do our best; but we know in the end there's going to be a lot of compromises made, and we'll just accept that from day one and work within that system. And that's pretty normal.

But the second way to do it is to have a really good knowledge of the land, have a plan that's based on that knowledge that you can defend that has boundaries that make perfect sense out on the ground. That's where the real test is, on the ground, and just stick with that. And the founders of the River of No Return Wilderness Council, who were the fathers of this great wilderness, took that approach. They decided that compromise was something maybe somebody else could do, but we were going to stick to that plan. It was a good one. Everything about it was defensible. And that was what we wanted, and we weren't going to settle for anything less.

But the politicians, including Senator Frank Church, definitely were not with you in the beginning.

No. Senator Church understood the value of wilderness. He had visited this wilderness. He came from a family that knew about that. Senator McClure appreciated wilderness, I think. I wouldn't call him a fan of wilderness, but he certainly understood why we had such places, why watersheds were important, how wilderness plays a great role in that.

So we had two United States senators who weren't with us, but weren't against us either. And they were both educable. Both of them were willing to take a look at things on the ground. And Senator Church, of course, in the majority party at the time, had to play the lead role.

But it was a case of sort of training the politicians, I think would be one polite way to put it, to bring them along. And so from day one there was the vision of a 2.3 million-acre wilderness, and the politicians all started with a much smaller number. But unlike the case of many wilderness areas, this one got bigger over time in the eyes of the politicians. That's maybe one of the great miracles of the fight for the River of No Return. It didn't shrink. It got just a little bigger in every iteration.

What were some of the sticking points back then?

Well, the sticking points were what was going to happen across the Salmon River, because the Forest Service decided that they would look at the Salmon River Breaks as part of this process. And that was a sticking point, because many people viewed the river, especially politicians, as a boundary. But the Salmon River Breaks is largely treeless, and so that was an easier debate to add.

Minerals in Panther Creek were a real debate. And in fact, much of the Panther Creek roadless land was taken out of the wilderness. And there were some timber sale plans, which luckily it fell through later on. So minerals were a big debate, especially in Senator McClure's mind; he was very concerned about the cobalt industry, which is a crucial mineral in this country. So minerals played a big role.

But the biggest uncertainty, I think, was that leap across the Salmon River onto the Salmon River Breaks. And that's where something quite surprising happened to the Forest Service, which proposed crossing the river and just dealing with the Salmon River Breaks.

The Friends of the Selway River – the Selway River had been taken out of the wilderness in 1963, the Upper Selway – decided that if the wilderness could cross the river, why couldn't it cross the Magruder Corridor Road, a silly little road only 20 feet wide. And so that was a huge leap in the debate. The politicians were not anticipating that, but we – by this time I was involved in everything – and we were able to convince them that this was a good time to settle a second wilderness fight. And that's the origin of the notion that this is the Central Idaho Wilderness Act rather than the River of No Return Wilderness Act. So a huge debate was what happens when we start talking about things north of the Salmon River.

And once that debate was open, then the great door to saving the Selway, a long goal of conservationists all over Idaho, was on the table again. And secondly, whether the Selway should be enlarged, namely, by including its great tributary, Meadow Creek. That issue didn't get settled, but moving across the Salmon River, I think, was one of the most interesting phases of the whole debate about the River of No Return. It became the Central Idaho Wilderness Act, a much bigger look at everything.

A lot of folks thought the Selway River was protected with the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in 1964.

Well, except no one who knows the Selway agreed with that. The Forest Service from as early as 1948 made it crystal clear that it thought the Idaho Primitive Area was way too big, and they also thought that the Selway-Bitterroot Primitive Area was way too big. And they never got around to shrinking the Idaho Primitive Area, but they sure succeeded in 1963 in deleting a huge piece out of the Selway, namely the headwaters of the Selway River, which was why you were saving it anyway. That was the chief goal for having a Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness was having the Selway River run crystal clear year-round, which it still does.

So no, the Forest Service never really liked the looks of the Idaho Primitive Area or the Selway-Bitterroot. And in 1963, just before the passage of the Wilderness Act, they played a nasty little trick on the Selway country and took out the headwaters. Not a very good way to save a river, with its head gone.

What role did Bob Marshall play in the Frank wilderness?

Bob Marshall played two roles in the Frank country. He fought tirelessly to not let the Salmon River Road go through the heart of the river. And his work, plus the coming of World War II, put an end to the plan for the road to go all the way to Salmon. So that was one thing he did.

Bob Marshall, of course, essentially created the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. That was his work almost entirely. But Bob Marshall knew the value of what was then the Idaho Primitive Area. He didn't visit it much. He knew the country pretty well, but that wasn't his heart. But once he went to work for the Forest Service in 1937, he was able to get the Primitive Area, the Idaho Primitive Area, enlarged by adding Pistol Creek, about 150,000 acres.

But I think more importantly in 1936 Bob Marshall drew some maps of the roadless areas that were in the country. And the best map of them all, the most detailed, the one that I've been privileged to handle at the National Archives, was his vision for what should be the great wilderness south of the Salmon River. He didn't name it. And his acreage for that was 2.4 million acres, an amazing coincidence.

Who were the leaders of the Wilderness Council?

The River of No Return Wilderness Council, which was led by a wonderful man, Ted Trueblood and folks like Ernie Day and Bruce Bowler, was blessed by having at its head some of the greatest people in Idaho history. They were people who nearly made the state what it is. And we can always reflect on what a wonderful governor Cecil Andrus was. And that's absolutely true, a fine man, and what a remarkable Senator Frank Church was and a huge legacy he left.

But none of those things, none of the great wilderness areas that we have in this state, not a one of them would have appeared had it not been for the hardworking citizens. Every place that is beautiful and is saved and protected, set aside, owes that fact to two or three unpaid citizens that had a dream and a vision, weren't ever paid a nickel, didn't run outfitting businesses or anything else. They just did it because they thought it was the right thing to do. And that's what makes the difference is the presence of people like that. There never can be enough of them. But we were sure blessed in Idaho to have just wonderful men and women like that. Nellie Tobias and my great friend, Doris Milner from Hamilton, Montana, who had this incredible vision, but had the gumption and the courage and the energy and the long-term desire over years and years and years to try and do the right thing for the land and leave something for our kids. And they succeeded.

Ted was the leader. He envisioned the notion of it. He helped set up the Wilderness Council. Walt Blackadar was a great man in understanding the rivers. I'm sorry he died way too young. There's some other people. Jerry Jayne, who's alive and well and did yeoman service. Ralph Maughn went to Washington at some crucial times. And when it looked like we were going to not get Meadow Creek added to the Selway, Ralph was in Washington and was able to do some really good things sort of in lieu of Meadow Creek. And Nellie Tobias, a wonderful woman living in McCall, who just did wonderful work trying to get the boundaries on the west side of the wilderness so they made some sense.

Does it bother you that, even today, it is rather hard to find any signage about the Frank wilderness?

Well, like all great pieces of federal land these days, there's just not quite enough money to manage it the way we'd all like. The trails aren't kept up the way they used to be. In the 1930s the Forest Service had literally hundreds of people working inside the Idaho Primitive Area. And now I would be amazed if it's more than 20 on a good day. The Selway has the same problem. The land management budget in this country has kind of been starved in the last ten years.

And that's led to the rise of groups like the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation, which I'm very active in. It's a marvelous entity that's trying to take up some of the slack. We're not trying to replace the Forest Service. The nation ought to be able to manage its lands the right way so people can enjoy these places. But if that fails, then once again, the citizens created this wilderness, and I guess maybe the citizens will have to maybe take a bigger role in managing it. It looks that way.

So when you talk about the central Idaho wilderness areas with your grandkids, how do you describe it?

It's tough because it's so big. But I tell them that it's the great treasure of this state, these two wilderness areas, plus the Gospel Hump, which is adjacent to those, represent the great heart of the state, and is the reason many of us live in Idaho.

The reason it's such a wonderful presence is it's intact. If you look at the maps showing places where all the functions of nature are still functioning pretty well in the west, Yellowstone pops up and a few other spots, but the biggest spot in the entire Western United States where everything is working really well, where the water is clear year-round, where stream flow is good, where almost every creature that ever lived there is still present, that is the heart of Central Idaho where the three wilderness areas are. And there's just nothing like it, nothing else like that anywhere in the United States outside of Alaska. So that's what I tell them.

All the things we value about Idaho have their essence right there in the middle of the state. And it's intact. The boundaries are pretty sensible. They make some sense on the ground. And the places work to do what nature intended to do, and be blessed by that fact.

You seem to always connect the Frank wilderness with the Selway-Bitterroot and the Gospel Hump wildernesses.

I think that's the way to look at wilderness in Idaho, not as the three separate wilderness areas that make up the heart, but as one, because the animals think of it that way. The watersheds certainly think of it that way. The creatures that have always lived in the wilderness don't have a clue that they're inside a wilderness area. But looking at all three of them as one makes some sense from the values of why we set aside wilderness.

Wilderness areas aren't recreation areas. There is recreation that goes on there. But the real reason to have them is for having some animals that never met a person. That's the nice thing to know, there's one or two of those in there. And of course, the real reason to have wilderness is high-quality water. And all three of those wilderness areas contribute to that, especially to the Salmon River and then to the other great river of Idaho, the Selway.

You said wilderness is not for recreation. A younger generation might disagree with you.

Well, wilderness areas aren't recreation areas. I have never viewed them that way, because then you get into the matter of my recreation is better than your recreation. And that's a silly debate and a demeaning debate when we're talking about the public lands. The real debate should be, what's good for the land, what can it sustain, what can we leave for our children to decide? A nice thing for us to do is not decide everything for them. And wilderness plays all of those roles.

And wilderness is a real sign of humility, I think. We're telling ourselves we're not going to spend every last nickel. We're going to save a little bit. We're going to set aside just a little bit. And humility is one of the better virtues, I think, right up there with charity, in my mind.

Marty Peterson has spent more than 50 years in public service in Idaho, including as a staffer for U.S. Senator Frank Church; budget director for Governors John Evans and Cecil Andrus; he was also on the transition team for Governor Butch Otter. He has also served as an assistant to seven presidents of the University of Idaho. He is the co-author of "Idaho 100: The people who most influenced the Gem State." This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in 2015.

Walk us through how the River of No Return wilderness bill became law.

I think a couple of things happened that, in advance of that bill, really made it possible to get it through. The first obviously was the passage of the Wilderness Act. It established Church's legitimacy with the wilderness issue and his ability to get things through.

I think the next key was probably 1978, with the passage of Church's bill to create the wilderness in the Gospel Hump area. The process that Church used on that was very collaborative; he brought a lot of people to the table. He had this, at the time, somewhat famous meeting that took place in Grangeville, where he had county commissioners, representatives of the timber industry, representatives of the conservation community, all at the table, working on trying to figure out what the configuration of this bill should be.

And, then once he had that together, Church went to work in both the Senate and the House doing a lot of one-on-one lobbying with individual members and got it through. I think that, really more than anything else, probably set the stage for the passage of the Central Idaho Wilderness Act of 1980, which is the bill that created the River of No Return wilderness.

There were three bills; there was a bill that the River of No Return Wilderness Council had come up with. There was one that the timber industry had come up with. And then a third one that the Forest Service was pushing. And Church, again, worked on getting people around the table, did a lot of work one-on-one with members of the Senate, members of the House and ultimately got the bill through the Senate.

He had another thing that helped him get that through, and just as with the Wilderness Act, when he had Stewart Udall as Secretary of Interior and Church's former chief of staff John Carver, as Undersecretary of Interior, which was really beneficial to his efforts on the Wilderness Act, when he ran the Central Idaho Wilderness Act, Cecil Andrus was Secretary of Interior; and I think you can't underestimate how important that was. I suspect Andrus hasn't got a lot of credit on this, but I suspect that behind the scenes he probably did have a significant impact.

The bill passes the Senate. Steve Symms is Congressman from the First District in Idaho, and Symms had announced his intentions to run against Church for the Senate; and Symms was vehemently opposed to the creation of wilderness. In '78, he had voted against the Gospel Hump bill when it came up in the House, and so when the Central Idaho Wilderness Act passed the Senate and arrives in the House, Symms introduced his own wilderness bill. And he was probably trying to position himself so that it showed that he too could be in the driver's seat, but it was a bill that called for significantly less acreage than Church's bill did. And the Democrats were in control of the House at the time, and looked at Symms' bill as being nothing other than a bit of electioneering. And, as a result, the bill was totally discredited and that, coupled with a lot of work that Church did one-on-one with members of the House, succeeded in getting his Bill through the House, and it became law.

In Idaho this legislation generated a lot of passion, didn't it?

It did generate a certain amount of passion. The Wilderness Act generated some passion, I think probably even more so was the efforts in the late 1960's and early 1970's to put a mine in at the foot of Castle Peak. It certainly became the defining issue in the gubernatorial race in 1970 between Andrus and Samuelson. And ultimately Andrus won. A Democrat winning against an incumbent Republican, with that being a major issue, would indicate where the public probably was, at least with respect to mining at Castle Peak.

But, you know, it was still a pretty gutsy thing for an elected official in Idaho to be coming out with some of the positions that Church came out with. In 1970, Church and I were in Challis, and we're standing on the curb getting ready to walk across the street; we stepped off the curb; we had a truck coming down in the lane on the other side of the street, swerved into oncoming traffic and ran us back up onto the sidewalk. I mean, you know, there were some pretty passionate feelings about these issues. And certainly the people in Custer county weren't particularly pleased with Church's efforts to remove big chunks of land from access by the extraction industries.

Historian and conservationist Dennis Baird commented to us that the River of No Return Wilderness Council held firm on the 2.3 million acre figure, and ultimately brought key politicians to their way of thinking.

I think there's a lot of truth to that. And I think it surprised some people. I think one of the issues that came up with that, Jim McClure years later, as Church was about to pass away, ran the legislation to change the name of the Wilderness area to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, a wonderfully gracious gesture. Church and McClure had worked together on this bill, but McClure wanted snow machines to have access into the area, as I recall. And, that just was not going to fly. And I think that's an example of the kind of thing that the preservationist community really made themselves heard and had an impact on.

Church was the only member of the Idaho delegation who actually voted for the River of No Return wilderness bill.

It's not only significant that Church was the only one who voted for it, but Church ran this legislation at huge sacrifice to himself. I mean, ultimately he and his wife Bethine sold their property up in the Stanley Basin, Robinson Bar Ranch, which had been in Bethine's family since the turn of the prior century. But Church did not want anyone to think that there was anything unethical about what he was doing, that there was any self-serving action taken; this was a huge sacrifice for Church.

Also, Church was getting hammered from the right on a number of issues. His previous stance on the Vietnam War, his support of the Panama Canal Treaty, you know none of those were making his reelection in 1980 easy. And then you stack these two Wilderness bills on top of that, the Gospel Hump Wilderness, and then the next year or the year after in the election year, the River of No Return Wilderness. Those aren't the kinds of things that a self-serving politician looking at courting favor with the voters is going to go out and do.

Sounds like Church knew the political terrain was changing under him.

I think Church understood fully well where he was at. Their national pollster was Peter Hart, who's one of the country's great political pollsters; they were doing a lot of polling, and Church knew exactly how threatened he was. And he moved ahead in spite of that. And even if he had been reelected, the chances probably would not have been there to do this because the Democrats lost control of the Senate. Republicans took control, and Church was no longer a committee chairman or a ranking majority member of a committee.

I've always thought it was a touching, generous thing that McClure did by working to get the wilderness named after Frank Church.

I think one of the things you need to look at is what happened with Jim McClure over a twenty year period. McClure entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1964 not unlike, philosophically, the current Congressman from First District, Raul Labrador, one of the most conservative members of the House. But, as he spent time in the House and then time in the Senate, he became more and more aware of the need to look at other points of view, the need to compromise on issues. While there were issues in Church's wilderness bills that caused McClure grief, it didn't keep him away from the table and working, working with Church and trying to provide input into what he was doing. And, in fact, years later McClure sat down at the table with Andrus working on wilderness legislation; and the two of them came up with a bill, which, unfortunately, was opposed by some very strident members of the conservation community.

I can't even imagine pulling off a River of No Return wilderness bill these days.

There is no way in the world you could pull it off these days. It would not happen. I mean, go talk to Mike Simpson and ask him how difficult it is to do something like this.

What were the repercussions of the River of No Return wilderness bill passing?

I think the repercussions were both positive and long-term. Even though Church was defeated in 1980 by Steve Symms, I think his actions, in the end, made it possible for politicians on the Republican side of the aisle to sit down and say, you know, maybe we can play a role in wilderness legislation. And maybe we can follow Church's model of collaborative activities, bringing people to the table and taking whatever efforts are required to try to arrive at a consensus.

Certainly that's what happened with Mike Crapo and the Owyhee Canyonlands Initiative, which was successful. I mean, I was asked in my position at the University of Idaho to attend some of the meetings of the working group that was working on that, and it just always boggled my mind because I'm a long time property owner in Owyhee County, and I know a lot of those ranchers, and to walk into a meeting and find all of these Owyhee County cattlemen sitting at the table with a bunch of people out of the conservation movement -- that was remarkable.

But it happened, and I think all of a sudden you've got people saying, yeah we can do that, we can do that and we can be productive. I think it certainly opened the door for Mike Simpson with CIEDRA to sit down and talk to diverse parties, work on compromises, that kind of thing. And now as a result of Simpson's work on that, I suspect one way or another you're going to see that area protected.

And I love the fact that when all was said and done, all these years later a former Republican Congressman from Idaho, Orval Hansen, owns a home in Stanley on the banks of the Salmon River, and is one of the passionate protectors of that whole area. So, the long range implications of this have been very important.

Can you sum up the Frank wilderness in a sentence or two?

One hundred twenty five miles of Wild and Scenic river; 2.3 to 2.4 million acres protected from future development; and the assurance that, likely off into as far in the future as we can see, that future generations are going to be able to go in there and see things and enjoy things the way current generations do.

Jeff Fereday, fresh out of college, came to know the members of the River of No Return Wilderness Council, when he went to work for the Idaho Conservation League in the 1970's. Fereday later went on to become an attorney specializing in water law. He reminisced about those days in the 1970's in an interview conducted by Bruce Reichert in 2015.

Who were the folks who comprised the River of No Return Wilderness Council?

I didn't appreciate it so much at the time – although I was in awe of these people – just how lucky we really were. These men and women – Ted Trueblood, Nel Tobias, Ernie Day, Bruce Bowler, Marty Morache, Ken Robison over at the Statesman, Bill Miners – were World War II generation. And in a way they were out of the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt. They understood somehow in their gut how important it was to preserve something that would really define a wild heart of Idaho, that would be big enough to completely protect an intact ecosystem in its plants and its wildlife and fish.

They weren't tree huggers or even liberals in that sense; they were simply people who really cared about hunting and fishing and the land, and they seemed to get it in their gut that in order to preserve the prodigious elk herds, the mountain goats, the wild sheep, as well as the chinook salmon and other species, it's necessary to not just preserve a core area, but also peripheral areas that can support these animals and these species throughout their entire life cycle.

This was a passionate time, on all sides of this issue, wasn't it?

There was a lot of passion at the time. There certainly was a lot of concern in the timber communities, Elk City, for example, some communities in Valley County and Adams County, for example, about losing a timber base. And those concerns certainly were legitimate. And Senator Church and others tried to meet those concerns. That passion was certainly there.

There was also the passion that came, perhaps with a lot of financial backing from the timber companies that were not necessarily always concerned about a particular community, but were concerned about their business on a more statewide basis. So there was passion from that side.

And certainly the public, though, seemed to wake up to the importance of the River of No Return, to the river itself, to the Middle Fork, to the beautiful calving grounds for elk in Chamberlain Basin, these other images that really aroused, I think ultimately, the most passion among the populous.

It seems that a lot of politicians, including even Frank Church and Cecil Andrus, initially thought 2.3 million acres was just too much acreage for the River of No Return wilderness.

The public bought into the idea of 2.3 million. Something like 66 percent of the people polled in various ways back in those times in Idaho supported 2.3 million. And again, I think the 2.3 came from an understanding that you can't just preserve a central core and let the buffer areas go. You need protection all the way down. As Ted Trueblood used to say, from 2,000 feet down in the scrubby lands on the river, all the way up to the high peaks at 10,000 and more feet. And that is where the 2.3 million came from.

It also involved lots of map reading, lots of input from people who really were familiar with the areas, and the decision was made that this is really the minimum. There could be a 3 million or even larger wilderness area designated, but this was what they felt was the only compromise that they felt they could justifiably make.

Senator Frank Church introduced three bills in 1979, each with a different acreage number.

As far as I know the River of No Return Wilderness Council had no strategy that involved three bills. Their bill was one bill for 2.3 million acres. And they were steadfast on that and were on message, as I guess we would say today, about that issue always.

So exactly what the strategy was for introducing all three bills, I think it was basically politics, because the Forest Service had done its roadless inventory and was proposing its own bill, which I think was rightly described as very minimal, sub-minimal really, that left out too many important buffer areas and ancillary areas.

The timber industry had their own bill actually in the end, which was a very small wilderness bill, which I don't think got much traction at all. So I think Senator Church was trying to be accommodating of the agency, the Forest Service, and those who saw things differently than we saw them.

Do you believe Senator Church thought 2.3 million acres would win the day?

It's a good question as to what Senator Church truly believed about the 2.3 number. I would doubt that Church was firm in his conviction that 2.3 would be the outcome. My guess is that he was probably pretty firm that something north of 1.8 would be the result. I never got the impression from him, though, that 2.3 was going to be it.

I did get the impression from him – and he told us sitting in his office – that this legislative effort might well cost him his election. And I thought that was remarkable that he would share that with us. But I was forever – am forever – grateful to him for being steadfast in moving forward with this legislation.

I'd also like to say that Senator McClure, even though he voted against the bill in the end, was actually a very moderate and intelligent voice in this whole process. He voted against the bill because it didn't contain adequate release language and some other what we might consider today to be minor things. But it was important to him, and he was principled in that. So I think that both Church and McClure are worthy of some credit.

Looking back 35 years, how big an achievement was this to pull off?

It was a landmark achievement. Very significant achievement. The right people came together at the right time, and we had the right person leading this, Senator Church, and to a significant but lesser degree, perhaps, Cecil Andrus. It was a time, when certain elements just came together. There was certainly serendipity there.

We had Cecil Andrus in as governor and then later secretary of the Interior in the later parts of this debate or fight. We had the leadership of Senator Church, which was the critical factor. And we had an incredible grassroots effort that really Idaho had not seen before.

Even though some of these old-timers like Ernie Day had gone through their own grassroots efforts back in the '30s with the Fish and Game Commission effort and things like that, it wasn't completely new to them, but for a kid just out of college like me, it was pretty new. And to see all this grassroots effort unfold and to see the tremendous response we had was truly remarkable, especially when I look back on it. A lot of consensus around a 2.3 million-acre bill.

The Outfitters and Guides Association, for example, were steadfast and critical in this effort under Norm Guth's leadership. So we had all of these elements come together. It was truly historic.

On the other hand, you could also say that it was -- it was time. It was time for something to be done about this incredible central resource. This large, wonderful segment of wild central Idaho was really being nibbled away at, sometimes more than nibbled, by a whole variety of pressures.

So the people who loved it were starting to see that, well, we need to do something here. So the effort put together by these leaders was really a tremendous grassroots effort, it turned out, with letter writing campaigns, editorials, petitions, public hearings, letters to the editor, bumper stickers. Everything was coming together in a very dynamic way in the '70s to help push the River of No Return Wilderness forward.

In a way, looking at it now, and looking at who led it, Ted Trueblood and his cohorts, I think this is sort of like the flowering of what that other Ted, Theodore Roosevelt, had in mind back in 1906 when he created many of the forest reserves that later became parts of this wilderness, that that's the logical outgrowth of what Theodore Roosevelt had in mind, and these were the perfect people to carry that vision forward.

And yet there were compromises that still drive some people crazy.

There were compromises in getting to the 2.3 million, in getting to the management concepts of the wilderness, and getting to the actual legislative language that established the wilderness, but allowed certain things to continue to occur, such as backcountry airstrips and jet boats, those being the two most obvious. Also, outfitting was recognized and has been, of course, allowed to continue in the wilderness.

The compromises were just something that seemed to me natural things that needed to happen, and that, again, these same leaders were willing to embrace. They weren't doctrinaire, ultra-pure theorists. They were down-to-earth people who had fought in the second World War and who had understood through a lifetime of compromise on Fish and Game issues, on public education issues, and other things of importance to them, that compromise almost always has to be involved, always has to be involved.

So it wasn't a surprise to me, and I certainly was not offended by the compromises that were made in the River of No Return Wilderness legislation.

How would you describe the Frank wilderness?

When I think of how to describe the Frank, of course I'm inadequate to come up with the words, truly, but I think of this image. What do you think that Lewis & Clark saw when they got to the top of the Bitterroots and looked west? A vastness. That's what I think about when I think about the Frank.

I appreciate its vastness and its inclusiveness in its providing a year-round habitat for fish and wildlife, but I also appreciate what a varied and wonderful recreational asset it is.

I and my family have spent many, many nights in the Frank, hiking across it, hiking down Big Creek, in and out of Chamberlain Basin, up to the pinnacles and the Catherine Lakes area and many, many other areas; it's very important to us. As a smoke jumper, I spent many, many days and nights over and in the Frank Church Wilderness, and I can tell you that it's remote and it's beautiful.

Isaac Babcock, biologist and cinematographer, has spent time studying wolves in Idaho. He and his wife Bjornen spent close to a year in the Frank Church River of No Return wilderness, which became the basis of a “Nature” program that aired nationally on PBS. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in 2015.

You've spent a fair amount of time in the Frank. How would you describe it to someone?

One of the things that sets the Frank apart to me as a wilderness area is that, instead of just an isolated peak or ridge, it encompasses entire drainages. It goes from creek bottoms to the tops of the peaks and everything in between. And when you have an area like that, it really enables you to have some really diverse ecosystems. All these different species of wildlife, all these things going on. Wildlife species in the Frank may never see its boundaries. They might live their entire lives within the Frank.

And I imagine that allows researchers to study things in a way they can't almost anywhere else.

When researchers do work in the Frank, they have an ability to look at something in a landscape that is, by and large, not hugely affected by humans. And that's a pretty rare thing these days. It allows an opportunity, if you're patient, if you take the time, to really sit and kind of learn from nature. These things happen all over the place out there, these really unexpected things. And you can't see that anywhere in the world anymore.

I'm sure you have thoughts on how we should treat wildlife in the Frank.

Because the Frank is so big, you have an opportunity for some of these animals to be back there that are fulfilling their role in nature in a way that we don't find completely tolerable in our human existence. And while we are a part of that wilderness, this is a place that we've kind of set aside a little bit to say, you know what, we're going to let a little bit more of this stuff happen there. This stuff is supposed to happen there. So I would like to see us treat the wildlife there with that in mind.

The Frank just seems a great place to study predators, whether they be mountain lions or wolves or others.

When it comes to predators, I think the Frank has a pretty interesting legacy. And that starts largely with Maurice Hornocker and all of his work along Big Creek with mountain lions. He really changed the way we look at mountain lions today. And then as time went on, suddenly we bring wolves back into the equation. And we look at a lot of the same challenges that he went through. And I really think the Frank is a great place for predators.

But is the Frank a great place to take a new wife?

Spending a year with a new wife in the wilderness is something that I think I'll look back on forever as one of the best things I ever got to do in my life. If you'd asked me that while I was out there, you might not have got the same answer. It was also, I think, one of the most difficult things I'll ever do. But I, to this day, and I think forever, look back as like that was just an amazing opportunity.

In the “Nature” film, you got the distinct impression that predators don't always win.

When we were working on our film, I really wanted to show all the different aspects of the wolves' lives out there. And getting that predation sequence just proved so difficult to get. But I think what intrigues me now looking back on it most was the unexpected things that happened with that. For instance, one night the wolves went up this ridge and there was a herd of elk on top, and I thought, Oh, my gosh. This is it. Everything was in line. It was the perfect situation. There was a lame elk. There was a wolf pack. They were closing in on it on a ridge, and then suddenly this other elk comes in and throws the whole wrench in the matter. And the next thing we know, there's no predation.

I think that was a big turning point in my head where I realized that, you know what, the wolves don't always win. It isn't just an easy go, “Hey, what are we going to dine on today? Shall we have this or shall we have that?” I actually saw where, you know, the wolves were working just as hard as everything else out there just to survive.

But eventually you got your predation sequence.

Yeah. And so we kept working and working to get this predation sequence. One afternoon we were sitting out on this bench (at Taylor Ranch) and we were watching out over the river, and all of a sudden this deer comes roaring down the hill, and behind it comes a wolf. And they get out on the ice. And right out in front of us this whole scene takes place. It was really difficult to watch. It was one of these things you built up and you're waiting for and you're waiting for, and yet the act is never something that you really want to see.

But at the end of day, what really struck me was that this is the way nature works. And wolves and other animals, they have to live by these rules. They can't live by ours. And this, the Frank, the wilderness, that's what it's meant for.

Any last thoughts on the Frank?

I think it's pretty easy for me to say the Frank Church River of No Return wilderness is the reason that I live in Idaho. I stumbled into Idaho as a young biologist. I was fortunate to get this job working on wolves out in the Frank. What I had no idea was that 15 years later, I would choose to live in Idaho, and that is in large part because of the Frank.

I think that we in Idaho are so very fortunate to have the Frank in our backyards. I don't know if we realize sometimes, but this is something that the entire nation looks on as this magical wilderness, and we are very fortunate that we get to live right here on the edge of it, and we have it right out our backdoors.

Richard Holm is the author of “Bound for the Backcountry,” the definitive book on Idaho's remote airstrips, written in 2013. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in 2015.

Why are there airstrips in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness?

Well, it is pretty unusual for the airstrips to be here. There are places, when the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 that they excluded airstrips, such as up in Montana. Idaho had a pretty wide advocate group that wanted to keep access open and really pushed for that. And I also think that Ted Trueblood and Senator Frank Church saw airstrips as an avenue to get the wilderness area to be larger.

Providing access was a main thing for both of them. A lot of numbers were out there, 1.5 million acres, 1.8 million acres. They wanted 2.3 million acres. And part of that was, if we can get the drainage of the Middle Fork to be larger, we can compromise some more things on allowing people to access this huge area. And aviation is one way to really do that.

They grandfathered in a lot of existing airstrips that were already in place. A lot of those were built early on for fire suppression activity with the Forest Service, and then a lot of private airstrips that are on private ground were later acquired by the Forest Service and allowed to exist under certain circumstances.

How many airstrips are there now in the Frank?

The area now defined as "the Frank" accumulated thirty-six active airstrips prior to the federal wilderness designation. If the adjacent lands and those drainages associated with the Frank are taken into account, the number jumps to roughly seventy total airfields. This is the highest concentration of officially designated remote airstrips in the United States, yes, even more than found in Alaska, given the defined acreage. And in my opinion, this uniquely Idaho phenomenon lent itself to the somewhat broad and untouched roadless area earning wilderness status.

Some of those airstrips are not easy to get to.

I think it's pretty amazing to see where a lot of the airstrips were actually built. They weren't easy to build. You know, I can think of several of them, like Hida Ridge, a very unknown airstrip. And it was completely built with hand tools and horses. They'd literally go in and pull out the stumps, move all the rocks by hand, using rock boats, and clear the airfield, literally where a stand of trees were, and move creeks and drain fields. They did a lot of things to get that access in those locations, including walking some bulldozers in and abandoning those or burying them or walking them out.

When did aviation actually begin in the boundaries of the Frank?

Aviation started in the Frank in 1925 or slightly before, pre-dating the area's Primitive Area designation which occurred in 1931. I'm not saying one trumps the other, in fact, it could have been a cause and effect situation. Devote outdoorsmen in regional and local papers vocally opposed "the airplane," arguing it would spoil big game hunting and cause a loss of wildness. However, the U.S. Forest Service saw aviation as a cost-efficient way to access remote administrative sites, and, most importantly, as an avenue to combat wildland fire.

It's important to remember the smokejumper program did not officially start until 1940 in Region 1 and 1943 in Region 4. Smokejumping was viewed as experimental by most until after World War II. So, the best way to get men and equipment to remote fires was via airplane to the nearest airstrip. It saved days of hiking and packing. A combination of elements aligned -- capable pilots, capable airplanes, and a clientele demanding the service (mainly the Forest Service) -- but most importantly, sufficient funding through New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps made the construction of airstrips possible, many of which are still in use today.

Can you expand on the connection of hunting and airplanes?

The first landing site in the Frank and for the entire Idaho backcountry, for that matter, is the Stonebraker Ranch in Chamberlain Basin. Pilot Nick Mamer worked with William Allen Stonebraker to fly in hunting clientele. Stonebraker originally came to the country during the Thunder Mountain Gold Rush around 1901. When the gold rush was over, homesteaders who were making their livings by selling goods and services were forced to make an economic shift. Stonebraker and his family chose hunting and guiding. It was a several day pack trip to the ranch from the nearest rough road and many more days from there to a railroad station.

Wanting to bring in big business folks, Stonebraker worked with Mamer to deliver guests from major cities direct to the ranch via air. Mamer was a World War I pilot who flew with the Spokane Air National Guard. He learned the backcountry while flying fire patrols and started his own private company on the side: Mamer Air Transport. He was the foremost aviation pioneer in the region and is now known as "the Grandfather of Backcountry Aviation."

What is the association these days of the airplane and folks who spend time in the Frank?

Hunting and other sportsman related activities only continued to increase in the 1930s and 1940s. The current Cabin Creek airstrip, now owned and maintained by the Forest Service, is representative of this early homestead-to-dude ranch transition, as the then owners dubbed it the Flying W Ranch, to honor the aviation access to the ranch. After World War II the hunting tied to flying further increased and was a steady source of income for commercial air taxi companies up until about ten years ago.

The biggest boost to aviation in the Idaho backcountry without a doubt is the rafting business, especially on the Middle For, where floaters rely on planes to get parties in prior to the snow melting and when the flow is low starting generally in mid-summer. The rafting trend really picked up in the late 1970s, and entire flying companies survived on the salary earned from the rafters. It is incredible to think that even today, in the second largest wilderness area in the lower forty-eight, that about 10,000 people a year float the Middle Fork. Without air access into places such as Indian Creek, a good portion of floaters would not be able to launch.

Why do you suppose outdoorsman Ted Trueblood had such an interest in preserving this area as wilderness?

Ted Trueblood fell in love with the area at the beginning of his writing career. Journal entries from that period of his life reveal the awe he had of the landscape. In fact, in 1939 he and his wife Ellen spent a four month honeymoon, from July through October, exploring, fishing, and hunting the upper reaches of the Middle Fork of the Salmon. The couple returned year after year in the post-war years on hunting and fishing trips.

As a writer he created a tremendous following and was seen as your best friend visiting with you around the campfire. In his forty plus year career, he wrote an astonishing 1,000 articles and published a half-dozen books. His readership among sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts gave him an incredible avenue to advocate for the area as wilderness to an audience that, in most cases, would not have been receptive to the idea. One could say that, from 1973 until 1980, it became an obsession to save the area he so passionately adored.

Last question: it can't be a cakewalk flying into these primitive airstrips.

I don't know, if the conditions are really nice, and you're not dealing with the wind, and you kind of run the approach in your mind before you start it and you kind of know exactly where to go, I think in a lot of ways it can almost be easier than trying to run an instrument approach at a big airport. I really think that's true.

Sally Ferguson is the executive director of the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation, an organization that assists the Forest Service in maintaining Idaho's two largest wilderness areas. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in 2015.

Why does your organization need to exist?

There is no question that the work our organization contributes to the Forest Service and in the maintenance of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is something that the agency cannot provide. In 2014, we contributed 12,000 volunteer hours, we brought 120 volunteers to the trails and we also brought ten Wilderness Ranger Interns.

We are multi-faceted in many respects. What differentiates the Foundation from being really a friends group is that we are focused on professional wilderness stewardship and developing young men and women to become wilderness professionals.

Our Wilderness Ranger Internship Program is like nothing else in the country, because we focus specifically on wilderness skills training. We give our interns, after we've hand selected them, we give them two weeks of very specific training. It includes training with experienced packers, it includes wilderness first responder; it includes five days of crosscut training that results in a certification. And then, additionally, we teach them everything from how to put handles on Pulaski's to sharpening tools and then, of course, living in the wilderness for ten days at a time.

So this could really be a life changing moment for some of these kids?

It's life changing for the kids, but it's also transformative for the volunteers. Most of our projects are six days in the wilderness. We provide the food, pack support and all the training that's required to insure that not only do they have a great experience, but that the trails are maintained to the correct standards, and that tools are used correctly. During that week-long emersion process, we also have people of all different ages, we have twenty something's we have a lot of retired people, and then we have kind of middle of the road age people. And so, they all have an opportunity to come together to learn wilderness and to really become wilderness advocates.

So can you honestly say that you've made a difference in the maintenance of trails?

There is no question, there is no question at all, and every Forest Service Ranger District would give us not only a show of hands, but be able to point out exactly where we have gotten the best work done.

We received the Forest Service Wilderness Legacy Award last year from Region One. We also hear on a one to one basis that if we weren't out there getting work done for them, the work would not get done. This year, on one of the districts we work on, we are their wilderness crew.

But isn't this really a failure of the Forest Service or perhaps Congress, that you even have to exist?

You know, I don't think that the Forest Service would admit that, and we certainly would not. The Forest Service would continue to carry on, regardless; everyone knows that since 1990 funding for the Forest Service has gone south. And yet, since 2008, the Selway-Bitterroot Foundation, as it was founded, started out clearing trails and bringing volunteers to the Selway. In 2010 when we added the Frank, it helped us build our foundation to a group that includes 120 volunteers in 2014 and also has allowed us to bring forty young men and women out into the wilderness to get trail work done.

Do you have a large staff?

In terms of staff we are three and a half. In terms of our constituency we reach a thousand people, and we continue to grow. Our board membership is about fourteen and organizationally we're very geographically dispersed. So it really allows us to pull in the flavors of all of the different communities that surround both of our wilderness areas.

The Selway-Bitterroot and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness comprise nearly four million acres and they are managed as a complex. So, as a partner, we work with the Frank Church Management Group and then we also work with the Forest Service and as a separate partner. So at the ground level, but also as part of their forest-wide management team.

There are people that say, the whole idea of wilderness is to go back to nature. Why bother clearing trails?

Well that's a great point; these trails have been around much longer than the wilderness designations that they have received. The trails have been frequented by visitors, by, one would say, American tax payers for decades and decades, even centuries; and part of the Forest Service mandate is to maintain these trails. Not only to wilderness standards, but to ensure accessibility by all.

You know, keeping the trails open is what we do. But we do more than just keep them open, because we bring people to the wilderness to provide them with a transformative experience, to provide primitive training opportunities and to convert them to wilderness advocates. There are so many people who will never come to the wilderness, but they still are able to visit the wilderness through the work that our foundation is doing.

There's been a transformation in the Forest Service in how they manage and how they are able to manage. Since 1990, the Forest Service has had a great reduction in the revenue that it receives from the timber industry. And, because of that, they've had less funding to put towards trail maintenance and ensuring the usual levels of accessibility. Correspondingly, the increase in firefighting costs have increased, as have the number of people that live in the wilderness wild land urban interface areas. And so, congressional interventions have included shifting the funding that the Forest Service has had for more traditional use on the ground, trails work for example, to fire fighting, to protect residences and the individuals who live in those areas.

The foundation has been tasked with expanding the capacity and enhancing the capabilities of the Forest Service to offset the reduction in funding that has come partly because of congressional funding mechanisms and also because the responsibilities of the Forest Service have changed greatly in two decades. So, we are able to bring, not only financial and human resources to keeping the trails open, but we are also able to create a whole new group of supporters for Forest Service programs and enhance the voice of wilderness.

Last question: how would you describe the Frank to someone?

To get to any place from Boise, for example, is at least five hours to a trailhead in the Frank. And so, you know, not only is there the journey, there's the commitment to being there and once you are in there the remoteness and the vastness is really staggering.

Peter and Meg Gag are the managers of the Taylor Wilderness Research Station, owned by the University of Idaho. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in 2015.

What is the special value of the Taylor Wilderness Research Station?

Peter Gag: I think one of the great values of Taylor is that there's been now 50 years of data collected here for various research projects on various topics. And that's really created a substantial database that can be used for a lot of long-term monitoring. So in a sense, since this is such a remote location with such little human impact, we can now use it as a framework from which to judge a lot of research that can be conducted in similar circumstances where there is a significant human impact. So that long-term monitoring is really a strong value.

There's a fair amount of wildlife around here that we've seen just in the past hour.

Peter: This time of the season everything's kind of ramping up. The grass is starting to grow. The animals are getting a little more active. They're getting more nutrition in their daily diet. And so, yeah, this being winter range, and the sheep have been here for months. The elk have been here for about a month and a half. And they're all becoming more active, I think, getting a little more excited to expand their venture.

What's a typical day like here? Is there such a thing?

Peter: There's typical components to the day, not necessarily a typical day. It really varies by season. Oddly, we spend more time on the internet than we would probably prefer, but that's just how the communication works for us here. There's daily chores, maintaining some of the infrastructural components that need daily maintenance, such as the water and power system. It's a little bit like owning an airplane, I guess. There's always something that needs a little tuning. So we're always working to try to keep everything up.

Meg, how would you describe a typical day for you?

Meg Gag: When the students are here, our days are filled from the time we wake up in the morning until bedtime. A really close-knit community forms out here. The people that come out here are like-minded, but they come from really diverse backgrounds, so they have a love of the natural resources that bonds them together. And then they have a diversity of backgrounds and interests that really lead to a vibrant community.

So there's lots of working together, lots of socializing together. And so our days are really long and really full, and very gratifying to be able to share this experience and the exploration of the natural resource sciences with students.

We end almost every day, when there's students here, at the fire pit. If it's not raining or too cold, we end with a meal around the fire. And it sets a really nice capstone for the day. It's a really enjoyable time.

What comments do you hear from the students about the experience?

Meg: Repeatedly, life changing. Students come here with an interest in the natural resources, and they leave here impassioned to fight for the preservation of wilderness. The wilderness ethic just becomes a part of who they are. And people say that you come to Taylor and you leave here, but you never leave Taylor behind. And it's just a part of who they are.

The students who come here are really motivated students, and they are going out and working for the environment, working for natural resources, and especially working for wilderness and to preserve it. And we've had students who have been published. They've written pieces about their experience here and have been published.

Your two year anniversary as managers is next week. How has it changed for you, and are you still excited?

Meg: I would say even more excited. Working with the students and the researchers and getting to interact with the people and getting to facilitate their experience out here is really gratifying. We hoped it would be, and it's even more so.

And now we are looking toward the future and expanding opportunities for students, expanding the infrastructure a little bit.

Peter: I think we've really learned what to expect at this point, so it's a little more difficult to surprise us with things.

What are the one or two things that people don't understand about Taylor?

Meg: It's hard to understand how very remote it is just by looking at a map. You can look at a map and see where it is, but I think flying over the mountains for half an hour or hiking in the typically three-day hike to get in here, I think people are surprised at how remote it really is. It's different to experience it than to see it on a map.

But then also the facilities here, I think it's easy for people to forget how remote it is. It feels very tame and safe because of the cabin and the hot, running water, and I think that that's a little bit of a surprise for people, too. They get here and they know they're coming to cabins, but they don't expect how tame it feels, how civilized it feels. And then you walk out the door a hundred yards and you get into this wilderness. And it's an amazing contrast.

Peter, how does this place run in terms of water and solar?

Peter: Since the university and the College of Natural Resources' tenure here, they've put in a lot of effort to maintain a pretty sustainable system, but yet robust enough to be able to conduct research here, because as research evolves, things are more technical. And so now we have a satellite system for internet. So we actually have real-time data coming out of here from three or four different projects right now. And we have a robust solar system to power that.

Water being one of the difficult components to maintain infrastructurally, I guess, we keep it flowing all winter long. And we do have a hydropower system that assists the solar system, because during the winter we don't have nearly as much sun, of course. I guess maintaining the water system is probably the most difficult component.

I mean, fundamentally, water is kind of the catching point for a lot of what goes on here. We obviously need water to drink. We're using water to power and water to irrigate. And to acquire that water, we have a lot of permitting with the Forest Service and with National Marine Fisheries, because we're taking water out of these anadromous rearing streams.

You were visited by a cougar recently?

Peter: Well, we never did see it. We had fresh snow. And in the morning there were cougar tracks that came up off of Pioneer Creek that runs by the house. And the tracks were 25 feet from the door. And we followed up it up through the orchard a little bit. And we've had a little bit of activity like that this winter, more so than last winter.

I have to ask you about wolves.

Peter: Because of Taylor's proximity to Big Creek and Pioneer Creek, we always have the white noise of running water, which is wonderful, but it really drowns out the opportunity to hear wolves howling. They have to be pretty close to hear them. So I always find myself standing behind the house when I suspect I hear a noise because it then blocks out most of the river sound.

We had wolves; I guess it was probably about five or six weeks ago, heard a couple of wolves howling up on the ridge. And we looked for a long time to try to find them. And they finally were a couple of silhouetted heads on the ridgeline. And I went up there maybe the day after or two days after and found an elk leg, and then tracked them back and found their kill. They had pinned an elk down in a pretty steep, snowy drainage.

So, Meg, have you made your peace with these wild animals?

Meg: I have. There's so much habitat for them here, that they really want to keep their distance from us. I think it's really exciting to be able to be so close to such beautiful animals and have this opportunity to look out our kitchen window and see a whole herd of elk going up the mountain behind us or look across and see the big horns.

Back to the students, when do they arrive and how long do they stay?

Peter: We have a couple different programs. And one of our programs is a summer internship that's for University of Idaho students; and it's for undergrads. They design their project with the guidance of a faculty member, and then they'll come and conduct all their research over the course of a ten-week period here, and then write up their project results. So they get to take their own research project from start to end and spend time here. And so we usually get six students from the end of May through the first week of August.

And then we have a second program that's called Semester in the Wild. So the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources has tried to promote more students here, and we're looking for about 15 students that will come for a full semester of coursework. And we'll fly faculty in and out. They are here for about 12 weeks from mid-August or maybe September 1st through the first week of November. And so they get to see a lot of change out here over that period of time. And yeah, every one of those students leaves with a really interesting college experience. It's just fantastic, something you just can't get anywhere else.

Meg: Working with the students and the researchers is, for me, the most gratifying aspect of the job. Living here is amazing, but getting to share this experience with other people is even more amazing. We're really honored to be able to be a part of that and facilitate the experience for the students and be able to see them transform in a relatively short period of time. And they grow as scholars and as researchers, but they also grow as individuals. And it's just a pleasure to get to witness that every day.

In addition to science students, the internships are open to any students at the University of Idaho. And the summer before last we had a fine arts major that came out. And she mapped interactions between animals and their habitat. So it was really neat to have the art major here and get to see this place through her eyes in addition to all of the scientists.

[Copyright: Rick Gerrard]

Behind the Stories


Here's the thing that impressed me while researching the history of the Frank Church wilderness. It wasn't the politicians who were the prime movers, as it seems to be with, say, the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness proposal.

No, it was a small group of committed individuals, led by outdoorsman Ted Trueblood, who pushed for this wilderness. They came up with the boundaries as early as 1973, and then refused to budge from the 2.3 million acre number until their bill passed in 1980.

The major politicians of the day — most notably, Democrats Senator Frank Church and Governor Cecil Andrus and Republican Senator James McClure — thought that locking up that much acreage was just not going to fly.

“It was a case of sort of training the politicians, to bring them along,” historian Dennis Baird told us. He was a member of the River of No Return Wilderness Council, the prime movers of this particular wilderness bill. “Unlike the case of many wilderness areas, this one got bigger over time in the eyes of the politicians. That's maybe one of the great miracles of the fight for the River of No Return. It didn't shrink. It got just a little bigger in every iteration.”

Another thing that impressed me was the generosity that Republican Senator Jim McClure showed to his colleague Democrat Frank Church. After Church was defeated in 1980 — in part because of his support for the River of No Return wilderness — and as he was dying from cancer, Senator McClure asked his Senate colleagues to rename the area the Frank Church River of No Return wilderness.

President Reagan signed the name change into law in 1984, a few weeks before Church's death. What a gracious thing to do and one of those bipartisan gestures that, unfortunately, you don't hear much about these days.

For our program, some of us hiked into the Bighorn Crags area of the Frank. And two of my friends took small cameras and hiked from the western side of the Frank to the eastern side, a journey of about 60 miles. You'll see some of their trek in our show.

Hiking is great, but in some parts of this wilderness, it's best to fly in or to travel by jetboat; and Frank Church knew that. As he wrote in a 1979 letter to a constituent, “I make no apologies for my commitment to assuring that this spectacular area can be seen and enjoyed, whether the access is by horseback, on foot, via jetboat, or small plane.”

Both Church and Ted Trueblood wanted people to be able to use and enjoy the area. I'm guessing they would have had a hard time with some of the purists of today who are emphatic about no airplanes or jetboats in the Frank.

One other impressive thing about the Frank: its size. Whether you float the 100 miles of the Middle Fork or the 85 mile wilderness section of the Main Salmon; or whether you hike into Ship Island Lake in the Bighorn Crags, you have merely scratched the surface. In this majestic landscape, wild animals can live their entire lives without ever seeing a human. It's that big.

“I think this is something the nation looks at as their magical wilderness,” said biologist Isaac Babcock, after spending a year in the Frank. “Things happen all over the place out there, these really unexpected things, and you can't see that anywhere in the world anymore.”

And certainly part of the “magic” of the Frank has to be that it even happened at all. “The right people came together at the right time,” explained attorney Jeff Fereday. “There was certainly serendipity there.”

How else to explain the largest forested wilderness in the lower 48, in a conservative state like Idaho?

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