I’m currently sitting at Dagger Falls Campground, on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The Middle Fork is a Wild & Scenic River and a premier destination for floaters in Idaho. The falls are absolutely stunning, our campground is covered in Mariposa lilies, and the air is filled with the scent of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir. We’ve already seen pine marten, pika, and we just missed the annual Chinook salmon run by a week. Despite having all the “feels” of wilderness, this campground is similar to many others in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in that the road leading up to the campground creates a “cherry stem”—a long, narrow non-wilderness intrusion—in the wilderness boundary. Considering that we’re over two hours from any paved road and at least three hours from any sort of advanced medical care, many perspectives would say we’re in “wilderness”, despite the fact that this campground is accessible by vehicle and the actual Wilderness boundary lies about 100 yards on either side of us. This common condition of “cherry stemming” in the Frank Church-River of No Return reflects the larger historical context of this Wilderness and poses questions for the future management of this vast place.
While the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness was designated in 1964 with the passage of the Wilderness Act, the Frank Church-River of No Return was not federally recognized until 1980. As one can deduce, this delayed designation came with many more compromises in the legislature—more “cherry stems”, a large number of airstrips, many private inholdings—as well as a generally tenuous “wilderness culture” when compared to the Selway-Bitterroot. From what I can tell based on my limited experience here so far, the somewhat wilderness-resistant character is wearing off in the River of No Return as our nation’s attitude toward wilderness becomes more admirable and more people catch wind of the largest, most unexplored contiguous Wilderness area in the lower 48. Nonetheless, the original compromises cannot be undone.
I now realize that most of my distaste with this all-too-familiar situation of compromises in Wilderness is actually rooted in guilt. As I become more accustomed to this area and the general workings of federal management agencies, such concessions become commonplace. However, my straight shootin’, deep-down wilderness steward self knows that we—both as a country with Wilderness in its veins and as wilderness stewards—can do much better than that. I feel guilty that I’m letting such lackadaisical wilderness management go unquestioned, unchallenged, and un-retaliated.
I understand that compromise is fundamental to functional legislature and I have the upmost respect for legislators that are willing to defend Wilderness, but it is also crucial to maintain a constituency that stands firm on the grounds of wilderness character and questions the decisions of our lawmakers. Only then can we live up to the title “Guardians of Freedom”.
Peter Breigenzer-University of Montana