Hanging on in Hells Canyon

July 9, 2012

“We can’t make sweeping decisions anymore without taking into account their effects on local conservationists”‘ Gehrke says. The Wilderness Society works at the national and regional levels to bring about environmental policy changes and forms partnerships with grassroots groups Eke the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, the Idaho Conservation League, and the BoulderWhite Clouds Council at the local level. “The metropolitan areas are very important to us, but we also need local support or the gains won’t last”‘ says Gehrke. “The gains will eventually be subverted unless there’s local pressure.”

The need for sustained local pressure to protect and extend past environmental victories in Hells Canyon is precisely what spurred Ric Bailey to reactivate the Hells Canyon & Preservation Council in 1984 after a nine-year hiatus. He believed that the Forest Service was doing a poor job of protecting the Hells Canyon ecosystem from damaging logging, overgrazing, and excessive use. The council always a gutsy organization, was originally founded by insurance broker Floyd Harvey in 1967 to stop two high dams that would have inundated Hells Canyon. In 1974, arsonists burned Harvey’s lodge at Pine Bar in Hells Canyon, apparently in retaliation for his efforts to stop dam construction. Harvey and many others persevered, and the dams ultimately were defeated. When the National Recreation Area was designated in 1975, including 213,993 acres of designated wilderness and wild and scenic river classification for more than 66 miles of the Snake, the organization claimed victory and shut its doors. Now it’s back because heated conflicts remain about management of Hells Canyon-the kinds of conflicts that pit jobs against the environment and for which people are vilified and threatened. The canyon silence is pierced by the roar of jetboats, bighorn sheep are dying from a virus carried by domestic sheep, the salmon are virtually gone, new roads and recreational development are planned, sandy beaches are being washed away by erratic river flows, and logging just outside the NRA continues to be controversial.

I thought about all of this on a raft trip down Hells Canyon that I took with friends in August. The canyon’s dry grassy slopes and palisades of ragged basalt were speckled with brilliant yellow sunflowers. We saw deer and bear along the river, and two of my fellow rafters caught and released sturgeon. As our raft accelerated into Wildsheep Rapid, the biggest in Hells Canyon, all of the politics seemed irrelevant. We bounced along easily, then dropped into what river runners call a “hole,” a caldron of churning, spitting, angry whitewater that held us in place for a moment then flipped the boat over as handily as if the river had us on a big pancake turner and flicked its wrist. We swam the rapid and dragged ashore rattled and a little discouraged at having lost some gear–but safe. I felt certain that the Snake in Hells Canyon is a wild river in far more than a legal sense. As I warmed in the hot sun, it occurred to me that conservationists can no more give up fighting to protect wild places like this than I could forget to swim after being dumped into the rapid.

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