The economic ripple of protecting wild rivers

Beyond wildlife, ecology, and human health, the outdoor and travel industries are impacted by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act—celebrating 50 years today.
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Orange tents along the Salmon River

Rafters set up camp along central Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Zero debris in the crystal-clear water shields the riverbed from the cobalt sky. I can see every shade of pebble beneath the flowing surface of central Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River, one of the eight inaugural rivers protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, celebrating its 50th anniversary today.

On Oct. 2, 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was established to preserve rivers in a free-flowing condition, so that waterways can remain protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The act was a response to the nation’s water resource development projects, dams, and diversions that spiked from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Survey Creek, where I stand, is our designated campsite at mile 75 of my group’s 104-mile whitewater raft trip: the river’s entire length from the Boundary Creek launch site to the confluence with the Salmon River.

Our guide company, Far and Away Adventures, is a Ketchum-based, family-run Middle Fork outfitter that’s not only survived four decades, but thrived despite drought and the growth of competition. Among several factors, Founder Steve Lentz attributes the consistent, high recreational traffic—and his business success—to the river’s Wild and Scenic designation.

“The Middle Fork was protected so early that it’s gained a reputation, and it’s protection is now compounded with the Salmon River, which was designated in the 1970s,” Lentz says.

River guide companies, such as Far and Away Adventures, take tourists through Idaho. The guide company offers 18 trips per season with an average group size of 22 guests and eight guides.

River guide companies, such as Far and Away Adventures, take tourists through Idaho. The guide company offers 18 trips per season with an average group size of 22 guests and eight guides.

Significant economic role of rivers

The Middle Fork is a premiere instance in which a Wild and Scenic Rivers designation plays a tremendous role in the economic growth of business in the surrounding communities.

Twenty-seven outfitters operate on the Middle Fork, and the accumulative client fees total $8.4 million. Far and Away offers 18 trips per season with an average group size of 22 guests and eight guides. Visiting paddlers occupy a total of 600 hotel room nights per year in Ketchum, and they order at least double that number in meals (dinner and breakfast), says Lentz.

In Custer County alone—which is home to Stanley, the final pitstop before driving to the Boundary Creek launch site—one-third of the economy is attributable to tourism and travel spending, which is double the rate of tourism dependence in the rest of Idaho, says University of Montana Research Specialist and Economist Chris Neher, who was also a Middle Fork raft guide in the 1970s.

“When 10,000 commercial and private floaters go down the Middle Fork in a 3-month period—and each paddler spends $300 to $1,000 dollars on a trip—it’s a huge impact for small economies,” says Neher.

In total, Neher estimates that the annual Middle Fork-related spending in Custer and Lemhi Counties—the two primary feeder markets—is as high as $15.1 million, which includes the indirect spending of travelers in the service industries, such as hotels and restaurants, and the direct spending that supports guides and outfitters.

Morgan Tilton

Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon River is one of 209 rivers protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, celebrating 50 years of existence.

Ideal duo: Wild and Scenic Rivers and Wilderness Areas

The Middle Fork’s pristine value is even more unique due to a second attribute: “The fundamental attractiveness of the Middle Fork amounts to two factors. The river’s Wild and Scenic status. And the fact that it’s located inside a wilderness area, meaning development is limited to the existing inholdings, like air strips—so, we don’t see continued development,” says Neher.

Twelve years after the Middle Fork’s designation, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness was also created, which encompasses and further helps to protect the wild river. The 2.4-million-acre territory overlaps with six national forests and is the largest roadless region in the lower 48.

In addition to kayakers and rafters, the wilderness attracts anglers, hunters, hikers, horsepackers, backpackers, and backcountry skiers. Within that boundary, 300 trails—a total of 2,616 miles—are maintained by the United States Forest Service, and a sliver of the wilderness area is also managed Bureau of Land Management. Yet, more than half of the wilderness is completely trail-free.

“Travelers want to see the Middle Fork’s surrounding primitive wilderness and the Impassable Canyon (editor’s note: the third deepest canyon in North America.) The Middle Fork rivals as one of the top rivers in the world that people want to visit,” says Lentz.

Today, only 209 rivers—less than 12,800 miles—are protected as Wild and Scenic Rivers. Yet, the nation is home to 250,000 rivers (more than 3.5 million river miles), and the Nationwide Rivers Inventory lists more than 3,213 rivers that qualify for designation.

Fortunate for all recreationists, and thanks to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, travelers of all abilities, ages, and backgrounds will be able to experience the raw wild of the Middle Fork for decades to come. Hopefully the success of its long-standing designation will have a ripple effect on communities nationwide, which have the ability to advocate for the protection of their own local waterways. 

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