We asked Idahoans to share why the rivers and streams of the Salmon-Challis National Forest (SCNF) matter to them.
My work as the Idaho Conservation League’s Community Engagement Assistant in Central and eastern Idaho is inspired by my joyful, formative experiences among Idaho’s special places. The vast SCNF holds many of these special places, awe-inspiring sites where I learned the importance of protecting our environment. One of my earliest and most profound memories of the SCNF was on a classic river trip on the Wild and Scenic Main Salmon when we floated around a bend to find a youthful, auburn-coated black bear scrambling up the river bank. My friend and I, safely mid-river on a tandem inflatable kayak, back-paddled to stay in place in the current long enough to watch the bear ramble up the steep, rugged canyon and out of sight before we set on down toward the rapids below.
The SCNF is home to some of the most iconic and spectacular rivers found anywhere in the world, highlighted by the Middle Fork and Main Salmon rivers in the ancestral homelands of the Shoshone-Bannock and Nez Perce peoples. Every year, thousands travel to Idaho to experience the unparalleled wilderness experience that these Wild and Scenic Rivers provide. These rivers and their upper headwater streams also provide critical habitat and spawning grounds for numerous endangered fish species.
While the entirety of the Middle Fork and long sections of the Main Salmon River have been protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act since 1968, their headwater streams and major tributaries have not yet been afforded the same protections. Without such protections, activities such as mining, logging, and new road construction can threaten these streams.
Headwater streams like Marsh Creek provide cold, clean water to the Middle Fork Salmon downstream. These streams are the source of Idaho’s magnificent rivers. Further, lower volume upper headwater streams are also the preferred spawning grounds for endangered Chinook salmon.
High mountain streams across the SCNF provide valuable habitat, clean water, and stunning beauty to Idaho communities.
Community Engagement Assistant
What do these rivers and streams mean to Idahoans?
I’m not the only one who has found inspiration, awe, connection, and peace in the waters of the SCNF. The stories we share, collected from our community of conservationists, stewards, and partners, illustrate how important the natural resources of the Salmon-Challis are to Idaho’s ecological future and the collective spirit of all.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River is a strong river that supports wildlife and vegetation and offers a sanctuary for those looking to get away from the modern world and connect with the beauty of the planet. The unaltered scenery and raw natural characteristics allow those visiting to connect to their true essence of self through the natural and untamed beauty it offers. – John D.
My experiences hiking along the mountain creeks of the Salmon-Challis National Forest helped to create the space I needed to connect to the true essence of who I am, away from all the noise and distraction of the modern world. It allowed me to understand who I am on a deeper level and grow as an individual. It helped strengthen my relationship to those who joined me and through that helped me understand who I am. Finding your purpose and connecting to that purpose in life can be challenging in a world flooded by the thoughts and opinions of others, but getting away from all that helps to provide the space to understand your unique purpose on this planet. For that, this special place is worth protecting for generations to come. – Matt R.
We visited the East Fork of the Big Lost River a bit upstream from its confluence with Wildhorse Creek. We got a fantastic view of the river from an elevated terrace and then made our way down to the water’s edge. The riparian vegetation was very lush, and the river had multiple braided channels that weaved through that vegetation. The water was exceptionally clear and had some small riffles and rapids. It was a really beautiful stretch of river. I walked along the creek a few times and each time it was different. I like not knowing what exactly will be around the next bend – that’s what makes these places wild. – Josh J.
I have hiked and fished wild Idaho mountain rivers and creeks since 1980. For me, Wildhorse Creek has always been the gold standard for what defines a wild, beautiful, and healthy high mountain stream. Every time I visit it, I feel like I am entering a sanctuary of the mountain gods.
Wildhorse Creek rages down from its headwaters at Arrowhead Lake in a series of great cascading hydrologic torrents until it reaches the floor of its great mountain valley. The trail through these upper sections is sometimes challenging but always draws you upward through uncountable roaring falls and cascades. The towering complex Pioneer Mountains envelop its whole upper length and are composed of diverse and especially interesting combinations of crystalline igneous, metamorphic, and multi-colored sedimentary rocks. The eroded debris from these mountains glisten under the crystal clear Wildhorse waters like jewels. The stream meanders through gorgeous, wildlife-filled meadows and healthy riparian areas in a series of shallow shoals and deep blue holes around every curve.
It is a fly fisherman’s dream, although I am usually too mesmerized by the grand combination of it all – rocks, wildflowers, animals, insects, and the brilliant clarity of the water – to do much fishing. It is unfathomable to me that there is currently no special protection for this beautiful mountain stream. Wildhorse Creek and its grand mountain valley needs some special protection before people love it to death. Now is a good time to do that. – Mike A.
Marsh Creek, a high-altitude tributary of the Middle Fork, starts in scenic, high meadows just outside of Stanley. As it meanders its way through the meadows, valleys, and forest, it picks up speed and flow. The creek is well known as an early-season paddling route when snow still covers the ground and before the roads open to Boundary Creek. This drainage sees a lot of avalanche activity – the mellow flowing creek can be deceiving and easily turn deadly with the likelihood of debris and strainers around any bend. There is a hiking trail that follows Marsh Creek with many popular spots for fishing or eating lunch next to the river. – Lana W.
My most recent hike in the Pioneer Mountains was an early-season visit to this high mountain area. As expected, the creek was at high volume, inundating some of the surrounding meadows and upper trail. The upper section was an explosive and loud continuous cascade. Multiple smaller streams spilled into it over complex rocky drops. Douglas and subalpine fir draped the edges of the creek often leaning over or through the creek, unable to withstand its unrelenting power. I saw backdrops of Matterhorn-like peaks, a moose, fresh bear droppings, avalanche-scoured trees, and the crystal clear Wildhorse Creek flowing among glistening multi-colored rocks. The lower section glowed peacefully in the afternoon sun, enough to make you want to become an artist. – Julie A.
The North Fork of the Big Lost offers unparalleled views of the high ridges of the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak area to the north and the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness to the west. Hiking and observation of geology is in all four directions. Fishing is great for small and medium trout. Wildlife that we spotted included elk, deer, goshawks, and a variety of birdlife. The night sky is also unparalleled with no visible artificial light. The ability to connect with our environment and “recharge our soul” is one of many reasons that makes this place so special. – Don and Sheri W.
Protecting the waterways of the Salmon-Challis National Forest
Once the Salmon-Challis National Forest planning process restarts, there will be an opportunity to advocate for interim protections of these rivers as eligible and suitable wild and scenic river segments. Another option is to create other administrative protections for salmon spawning in these headwater streams. At the end of the day, ICL’s goal is to work with partners and stakeholders across the region to build support for river protection efforts that will benefit endangered fish, water quality, and the people and economies that rely on these special rivers.
The future of Idaho’s clean water resources, recreational abundance, wildlife populations, and economic health depends on maintaining resilient, functioning landscapes and ecosystems. Ensuring the forest and its resources are resilient to the impacts of climate change, promoting responsible mining efforts, practicing recreational stewardship, and enacting appropriate protections for undeveloped lands and priority watersheds are all part of maintaining the exceptional, priceless character of the Salmon-Challis for all Idahoans now and in the future.
Join us as we work together to protect Idaho’s air, land, water, fish, and wildlife. Write a letter to the editor, talk to your friends and family about why you care about the headwaters of the Salmon River, and be sure to sign up for our mailing list!