04 Dec The Gray Line Between Recreation and Historical Value on Idaho’s Middle Fork of The Salmon.
The Middle fork of The Salmon River located in Central Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness contains 4.2 million acres of wild and historical land and is a hotspot for domestic and international tourism. Aside from the whitewater rafting, it gives plenty of draw to the nearly 15,000 permitted visitors to enjoy such as; hikes, wildlife and the large amount of geo-thermal energy that enables the many hot springs along the Middle Fork.
With all recreation on the Middle Fork of the Salmon there comes an immense amount of history along the corridor. What today is the Salmon- Challis National Forest (SCNF) was originally inhabited by the Shoshone-Bannock Tuka-Deka commonly known as the Big Horn Sheep Eater people. They inhabited the entire river corridor until 1879 with the start of the Sheepeater War. Which was the last Native American War fought in the Pacific Northwest. The Sheepeater War started because of accusations that the Tribe was responsible for multiple murders over the span of months, murders that had no evidence pointing towards the tribe. However, the tribe had claim over several miles of highly desirable land of the river corridor that later became very profitable mining ventures after the Tuku-Deka were removed by the United States Army.
Prior to their removal, the Tuku-Deka were a nomadic people traveling all across Central Idaho and primarily the Middle Fork Corridor. They were recorded inhabiting all of Central Idaho, Western Montana and Western Wyoming. While they were an independent and nomadic tribe, today they are federally recognized under the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Reservation.
Today, the evidence and historical presence of the Tuku-Deka people exist up and down the river corridor and visitors are allowed to reserve the campsites that the Tuku-Deka previously lived. The river trips down the Middle Fork of the Salmon are typically 6 days/ 5 nights and up to 9 days. There are total of 8 official historical campsites on the river corridor. However, most of the river regulars would argue that all of the sites should be labeled as historical and should be managed to a heavier extent. These sites are mapped out for approved camping areas and managed by the Forest Service office based out of Salmon, Idaho.
Some of these historical sites on the river are some of the most used campsites on the entire Middle Fork of the Salmon because of this every group receives a Leave No Trace talk (LNT) that explains how important it is to maintain the quality of the campsites. These heritage sites are designated as such because they contain pictographs, native artifacts and pit depressions. The pictographs of the Middle Fork contain stories of hunting, gathering, daily life, birth and various animal iconography. Stated in the Forest Service LNT talk it is heavily emphasized that touching of the pictographs is prohibited and will ruin the visibility. People are allowed to touch artifacts such as the arrowheads, but they need to be returned to the location from where they were retrieved. Of these three historical qualities, the Pit Depressions are quantitatively the most disrespected. Pit depressions are 2–5-inch (sometimes reaching several feet) depressions in the soil where the Tuku-Deka setup their campsites and semi-permanent homes near the river.
This summer the SCNF’s River Patrol teams have consistently reported overuse, improper camp usage and desecration of the Pit Depressions. The RP teams worked endlessly to maintain the wilderness, educate boaters and pass out fines when appropriate. While on the river they consistently make efforts to create visible stoppages to keep people from entering the Pit Depressions and they consistently find those stoppages removed and evidence of boaters utilizing the depressions for campsites.
The campsites on the Middle Fork of the Salmon are graded on a 1 to 5 scale of naturalness and these grades are determined by the river patrol teams. When a campsite is given a 1, it means that the campsite has no trammeling, natural plant growth and basically does not look like a campsite but a natural open area. 5 means that campsite is barren of life, highly overused and little to no naturalness and are candidates to be closed off as official campsites.
As the campsites get continual utilization those grades will inevitably rise as the seasons and years pass. The most hopeful outcome is that current management strategies allow for the growth of the native plants and slow down, if not entirely halt trammeling. Worst case scenario is that eventually some of the most popular and most used camps will have to get shut down and would effectively ruin many trips on the Middle Fork. The likelihood of a camp being shutdown is incredibly low because of economic stimulation and the sheer number of visitors that pass through the middle fork each year.
Some of the most used campsites are heritage sites. Some of the most famous and popular heritage campsites of that nature are Hospital Bar, Lower Jackass Camp, and Pungo. These camps are all highly desirable because of their visitor capacity and their mileages on the river. With those two factors of desirability playing key roles on visitor distribution of camps it can essentially propel these camps into a bottleneck a guarantee continuous use for an entire season.
The overuse of heritage sites is a huge concern because if there were any camps that would legally have to be removed from the official camp registry, they would be the first to be removed. Hospital Bar is one of the most highly requested camps on the Middle Fork, it has been home to many native families, it has evidence of the ponderosas being used for the cambium peels, pit depressions and was even an important site in the Sheepeater War. Even with all its significance and overuse, it would more than likely never be removed.
Knowing what the right answer is does not mean that any changes will be made or that they can magically make new camps that are able to fit nearly 30 people for a night. The likelihood of one of these camps being truly trampled into a flat ground is very high and very disheartening.