Editor’s note: This editorial by Marty Trillhaase is reprinted with permission from the Lewiston Tribune.

Herbert Hoover had about three weeks to go before he turned over the White House to Franklin Delano Roosevelt when the War Department declared-on Feb. 9, 1933-that Idaho’s Salmon River was not navigable from its mouth in Hells Canyon to the town of Salmon.

Talk about an obvious goof.

After all, the Snake, the Clearwater, the North Fork of the Clearwater and the Kootenai rivers all had federal recognition as navigable rivers.

Back in the 1880s, the river transported supplies from Salmon to mining camps at Shoup. A decade later, the river supported traffic to ranches and mining camps between Lewiston and Salmon.

As early as 1915, the Idaho Supreme Court had recognized the river as navigable.
In 1980, then-Attorney General David Leroy issued a memo to the Idaho Land Board supporting the river as navigable under the state’s own definition.

Meanwhile, people have been powering their way up the river since the post-World War II era. There’s every reason to think that activity will continue.

But there it stood. For 80 years, the odd, three-page War Department memo left a considerable portion of the Salmon River’s future to the discretion of the state of Idaho. The feds controlled areas under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act as well as operations that put materials into the river-but not any activity that removed something.

Such was the case in 2012 when Kaschmitter Enterprises Inc. of Grangeville sought to continue its decades-old gravel mining operation along the dry portions of the riverbed during low water.

Were the Salmon a navigable river, the Army Corps of Engineers would have been charged with reviewing the company’s application.

The corps also would have been required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and NOAA-fisheries to determine whether gravel mining had a deleterious effect on endangered fish in the river, such as salmon and steelhead.

Instead, that decision was left to the Idaho Land Board-five Republican state officials led by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. Despite appeals from Idaho Conservation League senior conservation associate Jonathan Oppenheimer and more than 400 constituents, the Land Board reverted to its prejudices in favor of resource extraction industries and granted Kaschmitter’s permit.

Which is why Oppenheimer-on the basis of past, present and prospective activity on the river-petitioned the corps’ Walla Walla district to take another look.

Its recommendation-pending approval next month by Brig. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon, commander of the corps’ division at Portland, Ore.-would bring the Salmon River under the federal Rivers and Harbors Act.

Lewis County Commissioner Don Davis isn’t happy about the change.

“We’re regulated to death,” he told the Tribune’s Kathy Hedberg and Eric Barker. “Everything that happens is driven by a small community of environmentalists. That’s the thing that scares me. Because of them, we have to study this thing to death again.”

But don’t blame ICL. All it did was uncover a federal blunder and have it corrected. The Salmon is a navigable river.

If Davis has a gripe, it’s with the state officials whose ideological rigidity gave ICL reason to start investigating in the first place.

-Marty Trillhaase