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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Opinion Columns

Wilderness plan
falls short

Guest opinion by J. ROBB BRADY

J. Robb Brady is the former publisher of the Post Register, and a member of the Idaho Falls newspaper’s editorial board.

The U.S. Forest Service has taken 10 years to come up with a final plan for the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness—and the agency still hasn't got it right.

For the public, it means more mechanical noise—from boats and planes—in the largest wilderness setting in the lower 48 states. The issue stems from the compromises that were forged when the wilderness was created in 1980.

For both commercial outfitters and environmentalists, it means more frustration. Both groups have appealed the plan.

What's wrong with the proposal? Here's a partial list:

·   Widespread jet boat use already makes the Frank the noisiest wilderness in the system. This plan would make it even noisier by allowing more jet boats along the main Salmon River. Commercial river outfitters want more jet boat usage on the main Salmon River. The Forest Service's new "boat days" formula for commercial jet boat usage gives them what they want—at least on certain days.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service has increased private jet boat use.

And this plan does nothing to reduce—or, better, eliminate— the practice of providing round trips for jet boaters to the end of the wild river corridor and back.

As a result, the sound in the deep river canyons becomes deafening too many days.

·   Think noise from jet boats is out of place in a wilderness area? Try a growing number of airplanes flying into the Frank's 27 airstrips. Today, those airstrips handle some 5,500 landings a year—small by the standards of Idaho's commercial airports, but substantial in terms of a wilderness setting.

The Forest Service can't eliminate airstrips. Like jet boats, airstrips were grand fathered into the 1980 Central Idaho Wilderness Act.

But it should at least decrease landings and even require permits—provided it gets agreement from the Idaho Aeronautics Board. The Aeronautics Board this month balked at any decrease in strips anywhere, but the board's argument—that these strips serve the disabled—is just so much public posturing. Obviously the small percentage of disabled are well-accommodated. Meanwhile, the Forest Service is preserving four airstrips of its own for emergency use. When it purchased those strips, the Forest Service said it would abandon them. Now the Forest Service says it also will allow "other" kinds of landings at these strips.

·   One outfitter had the chutzpah to seek approval for flying in hot tubs for his elite clientele. Had the Forest Service agreed, it would have further eroded the wilderness qualities of the Frank. Fortunately, it said no. But just the fact that someone thought a hot tub might be both appropriate and approved for the area shows at least some Idaho commercial outfitters want to restore the luxurious caches a federal court banned a decade ago.

·   In 1993, a federal judge ordered the Forest Service to change how it issues hunting district permits to outfitters. Those are public resources, but commercial outfitters claim them as property. Nothing in this new plan addresses that issue.

·   The plan doesn't address how floaters on the Middle Fork of the Salmon as well as both motorized and float parties on the main Salmon River are damaging campsites and trails. For the most part, outfitters on the Middle Fork have been responsible caretakers of the wilderness area. But the pressure on these areas is building because more people - both private and commercial trips—are spending more time on the river. The Forest Service should rein in the party size and number of days they stay on the river.

·   One issue the plan glosses over involves public access. Here's a good example: People can't get into a large area within the Frank because a bridge in the Fern Creek area failed. The Forest Service has failed to rebuild the bridge.


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