Tucked away throughout Idaho’s landscape are hidden gems that hold special places in the hearts of those lucky enough to find them. Such places are forever memorable to those who find them and return to visit them year after year.
One such place is the Lower Salmon River Canyon. Flowing for more than 50 miles through a rugged, steep landscape , the Lower Salmon has provided generations of river boaters an unforgettable experience of white sandy beaches and lots of challenging whitewater rapids.
For 28 years it was my job with the Bureau of Land Management to keep the lower Salmon River unforgettable not only for current generations, but for those in the future. One of the most important tools I had at my disposal was the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Enacted by Congress 50 years ago, the LWCF was set up to get conservation dollars on the ground throughout the United States. The program is funded by royalties generated from offshore oil and gas drilling. Congress made a pledge to the American public that in exchange for allowing the oil and gas industry to develop offshore oil and gas resources, the government would allocate the royalties for the conservation of open spaces, public access and recreation resources across the country.
On the Lower Salmon we used LWCF funds to provide public access and protect the character and landscape of the canyon while helping keep the local ranching families that had been in the canyon for generations “whole.” In the early 1980s about 20 percent of the river frontage of the Lower Salmon was privately owned. The fear was that during the cyclical hard times that ranchers endure they would have little choice but to sell off some of their river frontage to subdivisions and recreational home sites, leading to the eventual loss of public access and of the undeveloped natural character of the landscape.
With funding from LWCF and assistance from conservation groups and the Idaho congressional delegation, the BLM was able to purchase some parcels from willing sellers, but more often we crafted conservation easements, which purchase development rights while at the same time keeping the ranchers on the land.
In a classic win-win, the character of the Lower Salmon River Canyon has been protected and the ranching community continues its way of life. All but 2 percent of the Lower Salmon River frontage is now in public ownership or with a perpetual protective conservation easement in place.
This fall, the Land and Water Conservation Fund will expire unless Congress acts to reauthorize it. Just as important as reauthorization is full funding. Too often over the years Congress has siphoned off funds from LWCF to fund other programs, breaking the promise made in 1965 that the royalties from off-shore leasing would go to conservation programs.
Reauthorization of LWCF is caught in what seems to be the normal partisan gridlock that defines today’s Congress. It shouldn’t be that way. Year after year millions of dollars have been spent across Idaho on “win-win” projects just like the ones in the Lower Salmon River canyon. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is not a federal “land grab;” it is a valuable tool that enables states, local governments and local residents to help protect our incredible natural heritage. Idaho can’t afford to lose this tool to protect public access to special places.
Join me in taking a few minutes to go to the websites of our congressional delegation and urge that they support reauthorization and full funding for the LWCF.
LuVerne Grussing managed recreation use on the Lower Salmon for 30 years. He retired in 2006 so that he could spend more time fishing Idaho rivers.