By PAT FORD
People in the Wood River Valley will have outsized influence on whether and how a national monument is established in the Boulders and White Clouds. I don’t live in the valley, but thanks to people who do and did I have come over 35 years to love the White Clouds and East Fork Salmon more than any place on earth. So I presume to offer my thoughts on the outsized responsibility that accompanies outsized influence.
Most monument discussion I have heard so far starts with how it would, should or should not affect our uses of the area. Since our love for it starts with our use, this is natural, and important. But I think our core responsibility is to the waters, lands, wildlife, fish, forests, heights and natural cycles that are the Boulders and White Clouds.
A national monument could protect the waters,
in the SNRA and entire East Fork,
which give birth to salmon and take them seaward.
Many monument backers, including me, say we seek it to protect wilderness values. But in our legal and political lexicons, wilderness seems now mainly a term that contrasts and regulates human uses: here uses a and b are allowed, but not uses x and y. This is unfortunate—the word’s richness deserves better, but it seems to be true. So our core responsibility to the White Clouds may be better captured by Thoreau’s word: wildness. Wildness is the most unique, capacious and valuable attribute the waters, lands and life of the White Clouds create. We do not bestow this wildness—it is in the place and the parts whose mesh makes the place. But we can diminish its scope and depth and value.
For me, the heart of that wildness is salmon and steelhead, since they arise from White Clouds waters and then annually ferry into the area sea-packaged nutrients that over millennia built many of its webs of life. Its salmon are now endangered with extinction, and thus so is this unreplaceable ferry of life and health into it. We short-timers do not really see the damage done by the loss of this fish-borne wildness the last 50 years, and so tend not to grasp the worse damage it will do in 100 or 200 years. But to establish a national monument of durable value to the place itself we must try.
A national monument could protect the waters, in the SNRA and entire East Fork, which give birth to salmon and take them seaward. And while a monument cannot directly reduce the downstream dam mortalities that endanger White Clouds salmon with extinction, a monument could tell the story—to users and nearby residents, Idahoans and Americans—of these fish, how their ocean ferry builds the White Clouds, and the consequences to the place of their erasure.
The salmon and steelhead whose valiant tatters inhabit the White Clouds are part of the farthest and highest migrating salmon group on earth. The SNRA and Sawtooth National Forest have never told this story, or told what their disappearance will do to the White Clouds over decades and centuries. A monument could remedy that. I think remedying it is more important to the White Clouds than any lines on maps or any set of uses.
Salmon are not the only lens through which to seek the wild White Clouds, but they are the kind of lens most basic to it and its future. Baba Dioum, a Senegalese man, says “we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” A Boulder-White Clouds National Monument, soundly keeled, will over time better protect its webs of wildness and better teach their stories and gifts to users, visitors, managers and neighbors. Our responsibility is to lay that keel.
Pat Ford helped found the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition and then worked for it for 21 years. He is a former executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, and with Lynne Stone founded the Boulder-White Clouds Council in 1984. He lives in Boise.