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American Eden: The access battle brewing over paddling’s sacred public lands

Since 1906 public lands have brought paradise to the people. Are we about to be expelled?

Panoramic photo by Adam Elliott

By Scott Willoughby 

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area is a vast tract of wild country through which flow two of the country's most iconic rivers, the Middle Fork and Main Salmon. It's sacred ground to American river-runners, the crowning jewel of the 1964 Wilderness Act and a fitting namesake to the man who championed it, the late Idaho Senator Frank Church.

Doug Tims has his own name for it: Merciless Eden.

Portrait of Doug Tims by Scott Willoughby. Raft photo by John Webster.

A retired chairman of Boise-based Maravia rafts, past president of the Idaho Outfitter and Guides Association and small business owner—he ran a river outfitting service for 27 years—Tims knows the Frank as well as anyone. He and his wife, Phyllis, have made their summer home as owners and curators of a conservation easement along the river's edge for the past decade.

From his perch on "the bleeding edge between civilization and the wild," Tims devoted much of that decade to researching and writing a book about the people who claimed the 85-acre Campbell's Ferry Ranch homesteaded in 1897 and their century long struggle to tame it. Tims chronicles the complex evolution of management policies intended to protect the 4 million acres surrounding the homestead, many of which he has come head-to-head with as a private landowner surrounded by protected federal lands. As Tims recounts in his 2013 book Merciless Eden, the effort to preserve the remote pioneer paradise has been enormously gratifying, yet anything but easy.

The fascinating history of William Campbell's gold rush-era settlement of the Salmon River Canyon is especially poignant today, amidst an increasingly divisive political climate that has recently endured the likes of Ammon Bundy and a slightly less radical faction of legislative operatives interested in something of a gold rush of their own.

Groups like the American Lands Council, run by Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory and Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, and the congressional Federal Land Action Group created by U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop and fellow Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, have made it their mission to remove roughly 640 million acres of public land from federal management and transfer it to individual states.

Kayaker on the Middle Fork Salmon. Photo by John Webster.

Everything from national forests, vast Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holdings, wildlife refuges administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wilderness areas and now even National Monuments have become targets of the land-transfer effort.

This is no flash in the pan, but a cleverly crafted long game decades in the making. Last year, months after Bundy-led the armed takeover of a federal wildlife reserve in eastern Oregon, the Republican Party adopted land-transfer as a plank in its national platform, stating:

"Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states. We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands."

Emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, their continued hold on both houses of Congress and, lest we forget, the pivotal Supreme Court seat that came hand-in-hand with the presidency, Republicans wasted no time setting their land-transfer plans into action.

On the very first day of the 2017 legislative session, the House passed a procedural change that prohibits the Congressional Budget Office from calculating the federal revenues that would be lost by transferring U.S. lands to the states—a critical first step in implementing those transfers. Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz then introduced a bill calling for the sale of 3.37 million acres of federal land in 10 states. Though he later withdrew the bill in the face of widespread public outrage, no one believes the issue is going away.

Pueblo ruins along the San Juan River, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah. Photos by Aaron Black-Schmidt.

In May, another public lands fight erupted over the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, which president Barack Obama designated in the last days of his presidency using his authority under the Antiquities Act. Fifteen presidents from both parties have used the act 170 times to set aside public lands for conservation and as a legacy-building tool.

The Trump administration seems dead set on unwinding not only Obama's legacy, but the Antiquities Act itself. The law has been a powerful conservation tool—just the sort of big stick President Teddy Roosevelt liked to have at his disposal. He signed the Antiquities Act into law in 1906 and promptly used it to protect the Grand Canyon. Now the Trump administration wants to scale back Bears Ears and is reviewing 26 other National Monuments designated since 1996. Trump has ordered the Interior Department to determine whether any of those monuments should be reduced or repealed entirely.

Interior has not released the results of its review, but public comments have been overwhelmingly in favor of retaining the monuments as they are. More than 2.5 million Americans commented, and according to an analysis by the Center for Western Priorities, more than 98 percent of respondents supported maintaining or expanding the national monuments.

"This review creates tremendous uncertainty around special places that are relied upon by residents across the West, not only in terms of access for recreation, hunting and fishing, but in that these monuments provide the infrastructure for local outdoor recreation economies," said Matt Keller, senior director of conservation with The Wilderness Society. "The tremendous outpouring of bipartisan support for national monuments that has already materialized tells a compelling tale about how unpopular Trump's executive order is."

Scenes from the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho. Photos by John Webster.

Americans are passionate about their public lands, and places like the Frank and its iconic watershed serve as a vivid example of how significant the impact of such a transfer could be to the paddling community. According to the Outdoor Alliance, some 43 percent of paddling in the 11 Western states primarily targeted for land transfer legislation occurs on public lands, as does 71 percent of the climbing. Public lands in those states harbor 12,659 miles of public mountain biking trails and 193,500 miles of hiking trails. Public lands provide access to dozens of rivers, including such classics as the Salmon, Selway, Colorado, Green, Yellowstone, Yampa, Rogue, Arkansas and American. Access to those and many more rivers could be lost in a blink.

While a transfer of federally managed public lands to state control may sound to the uninitiated like a benign procedural shift, there's considerably more to it. Though greater local control may sound like a good thing, it looks far less attractive when you consider that state-owned lands throughout the West are constitutionally bound to the sole purpose of funding specific beneficiaries. State trust lands are not managed to benefit the general public, meaning outdoor recreation on state land typically is far more restricted than on federal land. In Colorado, for example, more than 80 percent of state trust lands are closed even to routine recreation like camping and fishing. Idaho is required to maximize returns on state lands to fund schools and other endowment beneficiaries, similarly restricting access to the public.

Put in on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho. Photo by John Webster.

One way to meet these obligations is to increase timber sales and leases for grazing, farming, drilling and mining. But the proven moneymaker is to sell off the land itself. According to the Idaho Department of Lands, the state already has sold off more than 1.2 million acres (33 percent) of the 3.6 million acres Congress granted to it when it became a state in 1890. That's an expanse about the size of the entire Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area liquidated to large corporations and wealthy private interests, with no requirement of public consent. It's the same story all over the West. Utah has sold 54 percent of its state lands. Nevada has liquidated 99.999 percent of the 2.7 million acres it started with; the state has only 3,000 acres left.

Meanwhile, the 640 million acres of federally administered lands owned by the American public are managed for a variety of goals that include recreation, water and wildlife, along with more utilitarian uses like livestock grazing and resource extraction. On the vast majority of federal land, public access fuels a powerful economic engine of its own.

Riverside camp and open skies along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Photo by John Webster.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, America's public lands serve as the foundation of an $887 billion annual outdoor recreation economy that employs 7.6 million Americans. It pumps $65.3 billion in tax revenue into the federal treasury and $59.2 billion to state and local coffers.

Comparable returns following a land transfer would require a complete state-by-state overhaul, with no promise of success. Economic analysis by multiple Western universities already shows that the financial burden placed on states attempting to manage millions more acres of land transferred from federal agencies is likely to result in significant deficits, necessitating more selloffs. The fire suppression costs currently dominating federal land management budgets would potentially bankrupt resources in large Western states.

Even to folks like Doug and Phyllis Tims, who partnered with former raft-guiding friends to purchase their own piece of pioneer Idaho and place it on the National Historic Register, the potential for parceling off America's public lands doesn't sit well. In spite of the challenges and conflicts they've endured with federal land managers through the years, they recognize the importance of maintaining wild places and the benefits they provide. A place like Campbell's Ferry offers the opportunity to share and reconnect an increasingly urban society with America's outdoor heritage, and the Tims believe the risk of losing more than a century of responsible American stewardship through transfer of the surrounding wilderness is simply too great.

"I think it would be a tragic mistake to take America's public lands out of federal management. It hasn't been easy working with the often dysfunctional bureaucracy of the federal agencies, but the state is simply not in a position to manage all this," Doug Tims said from his home in the heart of the Frank Church Wilderness. "The problem is that everything is so politically polarized these days that it's impossible to get anything done. The best thing that could happen is to get people from both sides to sit down at the table and figure out how to fix the system in the same spirit of cooperation that created America's system of public lands in the first place."

Talk about the American dream.


Read more about rivers threatened by federal monument review.

Check out Willoughby’s story on the paddling controversy in Yellowstone National Park.

Kayakers set new speed record on Idaho’s Main Salmon River.