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Advocates differ on how to preserve Salmon River

by Eric Barker
| April 14, 2010 9:00 PM

LEWISTON (AP) - Those who support and oppose federal wild and scenic river designation for the lower Salmon say they want the river and the way it's managed to stay the same.

They differ on the best way to make that happen.

Supporters say congressional action officially designating the river, which has been a wild and scenic candidate for more than 40 years, will make it more difficult for river managers to impose future restrictions.

Opponents see designation as a power grab by the federal government that will raise the river's prestige, increase recreation use and open the door for more regulations.

The section of river at issue starts at Vinegar Creek and proceeds 112 miles downstream past Riggins, Lucile and White Bird, through the lower Salmon River gorge and to the confluence with the Snake River in Hells Canyon. It's a popular destination for anglers, hunters, rafters and jet boaters.

Today the lower Salmon is managed as though it were wild and scenic. That is because nearly the entire river was identified by the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act as a candidate for protection. The 1980 Central Idaho Wilderness Act placed official wild and scenic designation on the river from the town of North Fork to Long Tom Bar upstream of Riggins. Congress decided the rest of the river should remain in study status and be managed as though it were designated until such time a future Congress acted.

A few attempts have been made at securing official designation for the last stretch but they have not been successful. Now Idaho Rivers United, a Boise-based environmental group and a local group known as Friends of the Lower Salmon River, want the Idaho congressional delegation to introduce a bill they have authored that would put the lower Salmon in the national system of protected free-flowing rivers.

Congressman Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, said he will fight for such designation only if there is local support for it.

"I believe the best path is one built on consensus. If the communities decide a lower Salmon designation is the right approach for the region, I will do all I can to help them achieve their goal," he said.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, has much the same approach, according to his spokesman Brad Hoaglun of Boise. But Hoaglun said support for the proposal is not evident.

"We found very little local support. It's being pushed by a small group, if this was something where a lot of people thought it would be a good idea we would take another look at it, but it's just not getting any traction."

Draft legislation authored by Kevin Lewis of Idaho Rivers United names current recreational uses of the river as key drivers of local economies.

"Fishing, jet boating, whitewater rafting and kayaking provide economic stability for outfitters, restaurants, motels and other businesses that depend on income derived from the many recreational opportunities provided by the lower Salmon River," according to one of the findings in the draft legislation. Lewis said if the bill passes and there are future disputes over management, people, including river managers and courts, will look to the language in the bill for clarification.

If people are not satisfied the bill does enough to protect current uses such as jet boating and rafting, Lewis said the legislation can be tweaked to make it more protective.

LuVerne Grussing, a retired river and recreation manager from the Bureau of Land Management at Cottonwood, said the kind of language in the draft legislation can guarantee management of the river won't change in the future.

"Designation means protecting current uses as well as protecting the river from future negative changes," he said. "There is no question that it would be much easier to change management without wild and scenic designation than it is with wild and scenic designation."

Opponents disagree. Art Seamons, a retired manager of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area from Lewiston, said designation isn't needed. The river is well managed under an agreement between the state of Idaho and the BLM, he said.

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