"The Frank" - A Rich History of Place

Tom Lang

Frank Church Wilderness Monitoring Coordinator

The Frank Church – River of No Return is a remarkably complex landscape. The nearly 2.4-million-acre wilderness is the largest in the lower 48, spanning across five National Forests. The folding canyons of the Salmon River Watershed make the area difficult to access, and extreme shifts in seasonal climate can produce unforgiving conditions. It is an intense environment, accentuated by slopes of decomposing granite which fall from the Idaho Batholith.

Nevertheless, this stretch of the Northern Rockies has attracted human habitation for thousands of years, which has established a rich history of place within the wildness of Central Idaho. 

This past spring, when I began working on a research project to help unify monitoring efforts throughout the wilderness, I struggled to understand the character and scale of the Frank. Eventually, I realized that it is a cultural landscape, and the label of designated wilderness only tells the most recent chapter in its story. I also discovered that the task of systematically observing 2.4-million-acres of roadless country is exceptionally difficult. For managers, the obligation of preserving wilderness character is one that coincides with the duty of acknowledging the historical components of the landscape. As a result, the Frank has a number of legally recognized traditional uses which make it a unique piece of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Based on these complexities, it was clear that the goal of monitoring recreational impacts across the landscape required a collaborative approach.

The first step in this approach was to connect with the five wilderness districts so that an understanding of the projects goals could be formulated. The opportunity to meet with managers and talk through their existing data allowed for the objectives of this project to present themselves. Additionally, the design process needed to consider the mandate of the Wilderness Act, which requires wilderness areas to be “affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of [humankind’s] work substantially unnoticeable,” and for such lands to offer “opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” Therefore, we needed a data collection system that effectively translates the social and biophysical conditions throughout the wilderness, and will eventually provide insight regarding long-term patterns of recreational impacts.  

Following the formation of a collective vision, it was necessary to join wilderness rangers in the field in order to understanding the existing challenges concerning data collection across the Frank. The local knowledge shared by wilderness rangers helped expand the scope of the project, and the perspective I gained allowed me to develop data collection tool that meet both the logistical and physical challenges of the landscape. Ultimately, what was produced is a data collection system that works to objectively monitor the impacts of recreational use on the social and biophysical conditions throughout the wilderness – which helps inform management decisions, and enhances our ability to be conscious stewards of the landscape.