Craig Gehrke of the The Wilderness Society
The River of No Return. That singularly evocative name has long captured a sense of primitive adventure inherent of Idaho’s Salmon River country, luring generations of Idahoans who sought such places where our shared Western heritage of wild lands and wild rivers remained. For over 100 years, the “River of No Return” meant “wilderness” to those who went there.
And it will mean “wilderness” for another 100 years and beyond, because of the leadership of Senator Frank Church and the cadre of activists around Idaho who secured the River of No Return Wilderness, later re-named the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness, 40 years ago. Navigating a narrow political path in a conservative, resource-extraction dominant state like Idaho, Senator Church worked to protect those select places across the state that personified the original wild character of Idaho and were best left free from dams, clearcuts, roads and open pit mines. Senator Church used the tools he helped create, like the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, to keep Hells Canyon, the St. Joe River, the Gospel-Hump country, the Sawtooths and White Clouds safe from the often thoughtless exploitation that sprawled across so much of Idaho.
The designation of the River of No Return Wilderness was the culmination of years of shoulder-to-the-wheel advocacy by Senator Church and the vanguard of Idaho conservationists dedicated to protecting Idaho’s wild lands and rivers. While each of the campaigns to protect wild lands and wild rivers in Idaho has their own unique story, there is a common theme running through each. Each campaign was organized and implemented by Idahoans who knew and loved a place or a river and had the foresight to realize that land and rivers did not protect themselves from the development occurring in leaps and bounds across Idaho. Long term preservation of an area or a river required an organized effort to make it happen. Across Idaho, hikers, hunters, and others organized themselves around a certain place, a certain river, and started the methodical effort to create a constituency for action to keep an area wild and a river free.
In the late 1970s I was a student at the University of Idaho, working summer and fall for the Forest Service in Montana and unaware of the struggle to pull the River of No Return Wilderness across the finish line. Mistakenly thinking at the time that working for the Forest Service would lead me to a career protecting wildlife and wild country, by mid-1980 I realized I’d made a pretty big mistake and started looking around for a career path that actually led to the protection of wilderness. In Montana at the time, I also knew that Congressman Steve Symms was challenging Senator Church’s re-election but believed there was no path for a shallow lightweight like Symms to defeat Senator Church. The November 1980 election was the first of many Idaho political slaps upside the head I’d get in the coming years.
Before long I got a job with the Idaho Conservation League and then The Wilderness Society, learning the rudimentary skills of advocating for the protection of wild country in Idaho. I started learning those skills from the Idaho masters who had worked to protect places the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness. Ernie Day. Bruce Bowler. Dennis Baird. Mort Brigham. Scott and Lou Reed. Nelle Tobias. Bill Meiners. Jerry Jayne. I was lucky to be able to draw on the wisdom and experience of these early warriors and count them as my friends.
Their and Senator Church’s accomplishments were inspiring. During those early years of wilderness advocacy in the 1960s and 1970s, there were no funding grants from companies like Patagonia or REI to help defray the costs of a citizen-driven wilderness advocacy campaign. There were few if any organized fly-ins of wilderness advocates to Washington DC to lobby Congress. No faxes, no emails. Professional conservation organization staffers to assist grassroots advocates were few and far between. The conservation movement in Idaho was a dedicated cadre of regular folks who did mailings from their kitchen tables, met in each other’s homes on Saturdays to plot strategy, paid for their own plane tickets to travel to Washington D.C., passed the hat or sold posters and bumper stickers to pay for mailings and newspaper ads, and most importantly, stood up in intensely hostile hearings and meetings in rural Idaho and spoke for wild land protection.
And standing right there with them was Senator Church. As I learned more of the ups and downs – mostly downs – of Idaho politics and wilderness advocacy, I came to have a greater appreciation of Senator Church’s efforts. While conservationists created the political space for Senator Church to champion wilderness, that political space would have meant little without the Senator’s personal commitment to wilderness. In a state where the common wisdom held that lands and rivers were good only when logged, dammed, grazed, dredged or dug up, Senator Church stood up and articulated a different vision for some lands – a vision that recognized that Idaho and the entire country was best served by preserving those special, irreplaceable landscapes and rivers in their natural state. Senator Church pushed back on those haranguing that in order to prosper Idaho was dependent on natural resource extraction – all the time and all places. The Senator knew that an Idaho worth living in not only developed some natural resources for jobs but also kept some lands and rivers undeveloped, knowing the incomparable richness they brought to the lives of Idahoans.
The Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness certainly has enriched my and my family’s life. Camping trips to the Lola Creek Campground on the edge of “The Frank” evolved into annual events, and among the first trails my very young kids toddled down was the wilderness trail to the bridge crossing of Marsh Creek, a fine place to eat lunch and throw rocks in the creek. As they grew older, we pushed further and further down that trail until finally reaching Marsh Creek’s union with Bear Valley Creek and the start of Idaho’s most famous river, the Middle Fork of the Salmon.
Other trips and other memories came over the years. The Bighorn Crags, Langer Lakes, Rapid River, Soldier Lakes, the Middle Fork proper, the Main Salmon, and many others. A few years ago on a blue bird summer day my wife and I hiked to the Ruffneck Lookout and looked to the north, east and west and as far as we could see was the rugged heart of our home state — mountains and canyons stretching to each horizon. It was a view that will be there this year, and next, and for years after that, because of the hard work of Ernie, Bruce, Nelle, Senator Church and many others.
Forty years have passed since the designation of the River of No Return Wilderness, and memories of the contentious debate to designate the Wilderness have largely faded and today most Idahoans accept “The Frank” as a wonderful fact of life of living in this state. On anniversaries like this one, though, it is important to remember the Wilderness is there because of the love so many had for it. The designation of the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness will always be one of Idaho’s great conservation, citizen engagement, and political leadership achievements.
Craig Gehrke is the Idaho State Director of The Wilderness Society