1980 – Wilderness: Conserving Special Places

“A wilderness is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” -Excerpt from the 1964 Wilderness Act

Fifty years ago, America became the first nation to make conservation of wilderness a national policy. For Idaho, this meant conserving the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness along the Idaho’s northern Rocky Mountain spine. But the biggest swath of wilderness in the state, “The River of No Return Wilderness,” was set aside in 1980 largely due to the efforts of Idaho Senator Frank Church and then Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus with essential help from Idaho Fish & Game’s Marty Morache.

“We had good and valid reason to strive for the protection of that and it was primarily driven by the anadromous fish values,” said 87-year-old Morache.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River is crucial habitat for Idaho’s Chinook salmon, steelhead and sockeye salmon. It also was home to bighorn sheep, elk, deer, bear, mountain lions, wolverines and more. Hand in hand with conserving Idaho’s wildlife comes the responsibility of conserving the wild places where these animals make their home.

So, wildlife biologist Marty Morache was sent to Washington DC to speak to President Jimmy Carter’s cabinet about the wildlife value of setting aside the River of No Return as the largest unbroken wilderness area in the lower 48 states.

“It wouldn’t be until 1980 that we were able to perfect the boundaries to the Frank Church,” said Morache. “And I did really have almost an unqualified assignment to settle that because we had a very valid argument in the Department and this was the protection of anadromous fisheries.”

But this rugged country wasn't entirely undeveloped. Miners were the first white settlers to discover the Middle Fork area following the discovery of gold in 1860 at Pierce, Idaho. Homesteaders staked claims around the turn of the century establishing scattered pockets of private land up and down the drainages of the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

Then in 1929, the U.S. Forest Service implemented a new policy that set aside tracts in national forests for conservation in natural condition called “Primitive Areas.” More than one million acres in the Middle Fork country was set-aside in 1931 and called the "Idaho Primitive Area."

In the early 1940’s, the Idaho Fish & Game Department became involved, buying up some of the old homestead property with Pittman-Robertson funds to conserve and improve conditions for wildlife. These funds were the result of a 1937 federal law that imposed an excise tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition for distribution to the states for wildlife restoration.

“The Department, talk about a bargain, the average size of the properties they bought was around a hundred acres at the cost of about forty-five dollars an acre,” said Morache. “Unbelievable! But true. Forty-five dollars an acre, and we still have those properties to this day.”

Eventually, back country landing strips were added as the airplane became the most practical method of travel to these remote outposts. But for the most part, the primitive area was undeveloped and a perfect candidate for wilderness designation in 1980 as the “River of No Return Wilderness”.

This designation provided the U.S. Forest Service with jurisdiction and responsibility to manage the land and habitat for wilderness character. And the state of Idaho has jurisdiction and responsibility in management of fish and wildlife in wilderness. This means striking a balance between what’s best for the land and the wildlife while trying to honor the wilderness integrity.

For the Forest Service, it may mean treating the landscape to control noxious weeds. Also, to avoid excessive human impacts, the Forest Service has limited the number of floaters on the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

To manage the fish and wildlife, Idaho Fish and Game must be able track population trends. This can often mean capturing and radio collaring animals or electroshocking streams to count fish and then taking actions to meet the state management objectives for these species. These activities are undertaken with careful consideration to maintaining the wilderness character.

Wilderness benefits both fish and wildlife by protecting against human development. Sediment from roads or timber harvest can damage streams. The wildlife in wilderness areas has a lower vulnerability to hunting because fewer people are willing to tackle the challenge of hunting in those areas. This allows for longer seasons enjoyed by hunters.

But for many hunters and anglers, wilderness provides a very unique type of experience. Retired Fish & Game Biologist Al Van Vooren said it best, “We have an obligation to protect the resource, make sure the resource is here. Then we have a second obligation to provide for the type of experience that the angler and hunter in Idaho wants…untouched country where you feel like you could be the only person who’s been there…the wilderness experience.”

In 1984, when Senator Frank Church was dying of cancer, his name was added to the wilderness area he fought for, becoming “The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness,” affectionately known as “The Frank.”