Skip to main content

Dennis Baird of the Selway-Bitterroot History Project

Many of us in Idaho who call ourselves conservationists have usually argued that the time to deal with a crisis on our public lands is right now, while I have often added a corollary: the best time to deal with forest issues is when there is full employment in the woods.

A meeting of conservation leaders in Salmon in 1973 led to the subsequent establishment of the River of No Return Wilderness Council, led by Ted Trueblood and dedicated to establishing a great Wilderness Area of 2.3 million acres. And by 1977, Trueblood and his organization were certain of two things. First, if their goal was to be realized, it would be Frank Church, a man that they admired and considered to be a true friend who would do it. And secondly, a genuine crisis was at hand.

The reclassification of the Selway-Bitterroot Primitive Area had made it clear that Primitive Areas were all just too big in the eyes of the Forest Service, and their planning for the even bigger Idaho Primitive Area was making no secret that reduction would be the same fate. The debate and subsequent establishment of the Gospel-Hump Wilderness in 1977-78 seemed to have diverted interest in new legislation, and the Wilderness Council was broke and showing signs of fatigue. And there were no signs at all that Senator Church, busy with many other things, including the aftermath of the CIA hearings, was up to a new fight.

But that autumn, Morton Brigham, a Lewiston conservationist, sawmill designer, and woodcutter wrote Trueblood reminding him of two important virtues of Frank Church. First, a series of thoughtful letters, sent over time, made an impact on the Senator. And secondly, he was always open to new ideas and rarely locked in stone any position. He had, after all, said that he would never deal with the Gospel-Hump issued.

And so, on 3 December 1977, Trueblood wrote an amazing, candid, and moving “Dear Frank” letter, knowing that it would actually be read by the only Idaho member of Congress who valued and cared about wild places and wild rivers. “We are your friends,” he said, and we are worried that you have lost your courage. In 1978, we want you to introduce, by request, our bill for a 2.3 million-acre River of No Return Wilderness.

And Frank Church did just that, followed early in 1979 by the introduction of three bills representing the three possible ways to deal with the fate of the Idaho Primitive Area.

Senator Church was well known to have in his DC staff an amazing constituent service operation, but at least for me, the ability of that office to read reasonable letters, to ensure that the Senator saw plenty of them, and to think carefully about the reply represents what might be seen these days as a magic moment in time. It certainly was a time when very big people roamed the bit of Earth that is Idaho.


Dennis Baird is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho and Director of the Selway-Bitterroot History Project