Major milestone reached in effort to protect the Clearwater Basin of Idaho

The area known as Clearwater Basin is the native land of the Nez Perce Native American tribe and is one of the wildlands that Lewis and Clark explored.

NWCouncil, flickr

Idaho’s Clearwater Basin now has a blueprint for the future to protect world class recreation opportunities and pristine landscapes, in addition to creating jobs and providing funding for wilderness stewardship. Five years of collaboration paid off on May 31, when a broadly supported agreement that outlines a strategy to protect some of the most ecologically important lands in Idaho and the Northern Rockies was finalized.

The Clearwater Basin, which is 4 million acres in size and includes more than 1.2 million acres of wilderness quality land, stretches from the Montana border all the way west to Washington. The new agreement proposing permanent land protection in this region is the first of its kind to ever garner such unanimous support.

Clearwater Basin Collaborative, which was convened by Senator Mike Crapo in 2008, endorsed an agreement that includes nearly 500,000 acres of Wilderness and Special Management Area Designations, nearly 200 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers protections, and forest restoration efforts to improve trails on over 1 million acres of existing wilderness over a 10 year period.

Here’s what the agreement would protect:

  • Habitats and migration routes: The Clearwater Basin is a vital habitat for wildlife species such as Canada lynx, wolves, elk and mountain goats. 
  • Ecosystems: The Clearwater Basin plays a vital role in connecting several areas to the Crown of the Continent ecosystem in northwest Montana. Maintaining and restoring connectivity between landscapes like these is one of the most important steps that can be taken to ensure the success of ecosystems and wildlife facing challenges from a changing climate. 
  • Recreation: The pristine rivers and lands provide endless opportunities for whitewater rafting, fishing, backpacking and exploration.  The agreement would protect these remarkable experiences in perpetuity.
  • Wildlife: The rivers and streams recommended for protection contain some of the strongest remaining populations in the lower 48 states of bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, Chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

Key provisions of the agreement:

  • The establishment of approximately 326,000 acres of new wilderness areas such as the Great Burn, Sneakfoot Meadows, White Sands Creek, Mallard-Larkins and East Meadow Creek roadless areas.
  • Two Special Management Area Designations for Cayuse Creek and West Meadow Creek totaling 170,000 acres in size that will protect these fish and water quality.
  • More than 170 miles of Wild and Scenic River Protections including Kelly Creek, Fish Creek, Hungry Creek, Meadow Creek, Johns Creek, Cayuse Creek and the Little North Fork of the Clearwater.
  • In-stream river protections from mining for the North Fork of the Clearwater River.
  • Increased forest restoration and vegetation management in the already-roaded landscape intended to bolster rural economies and county governments.
  • Tribal protections for areas historically important to the Nez Perce Tribe.

Photo: Emily Diamond-Falk

What comes next? The Wilderness Society, along with our collaborative partners, will continue working with the Forest Service to implement those items in the agreement that do not require legislation.  The Clearwater Collaborative will also be working with Senator Mike Crapo (R) to figure out a successful path to implement those portions of the agreement that require Congressional action, such as wilderness and Wild & Scenic Rivers.

"You can't pull any one of these out on their own," said Brad Brooks, Idaho Deputy Regional Director at the Wilderness Society, in an interview with the Lewiston Tribune. "The key here is this only works if it's all together."

The Clearwater Basin Collaborative Agreement and Work Plan provides a model for public lands management that allows local and national interests to develop mutually agreeable solutions that benefit everyone in the long-run.

Photos: US Fish and Wildlife Service