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he Lords of Yesterday
In 1960, Harold Thomas founded the Trus Joist Corporation. The Idaho company was based on the invention of a unique structural truss that joins together two-by-fours or two-by-sixes with steel tubing and a patented pin connection. These open-web trusses, used to support roofs and floors in commercial buildings, combine the lightweight, nailable qualities of wood with the strength of steel. Over the years, Trus Joist has expanded its operations to produce several other product lines, including an all-wood laminated truss used in residential construction. Today, corporate headquarters remain in Boise, but the company, now called TJ International and generating annual sales of $327 million, also operates manufacturing facilities in California, Oregon, Colorado, Ohio, Louisiana, Georgia, and Alberta, Canada. Thomas, who graduated from the University of Idaho with a degree in forestry, continues as chairman of the board of the highly successful firm. A native Idahoan and a lifelong outdoorsman, he has parlayed his accomplishments in the wood products industry into ownership of Allison Ranch, a fly-in guest ranch on the main branch of the Salmon River, far back in central Idaho's vast knot of mountain ranges and deep canyons, which holds more wild land than any other place in the lower 48 states.
For years, the Forest Service has had plans for a logging and roading complex in an area locals call "Jersey-Jack," not far from the Allison Ranch. The Jersey-Jack project, which will open up a 41,000-acre area to allow the Forest Service to harvest 76 million board feet of timber, will cut through a roadless area but will not intrude on any congressionally declared wilderness area, neither the Gospel Hump directly to the west nor the Frank Church—River of No Return just to the south. There will be considerable construction work. A network of 150 miles of logging roads, nearly 2½. miles of road for every square mile of land within the project, will be built to allow access to the area's stands of lodgepole pine. And let there be no doubt that these roads will get plenty of use: since it takes about 200 fully loaded logging trucks to carry out 1 million board feet, this logging operation—not a large one by Forest Service standards—will require about 15,000 truckloads to haul out the downed timber.
Most of the residents of Elk City, in another drainage about 45 miles north of the Jersey-Jack area, support this roading and logging. Although the newly minted civic sign at the city limits styles Elk City as the "Year Round Recreation Land," the town is still dominated by the Bennett Lumber Mill, owned by Dick Bennett of Potlatch, Idaho. Most of the logging contracts at Jersey-Jack will go to the Bennett Mill, and people in Elk City favor the jobs and revenue that will result. This is not easy country to make a living in, and 76 million board feet of timber provides a measure of security.
But Harold Thomas, with his square, chiseled features and red hair now leavened by gray, begins to smolder when he talks about roadless area logging that makes what he thinks is bad economic policy. The problem for Thomas is that timber sales in the Jersey-Jack region, like many Forest Service timber sales in the Rocky Mountains, will result in a net loss to the government—up to $4.5 million in the case of Jersey-Jack alone. Thomas goes at these issues in a measured way, deliberately stacking up the glory values in this deep backcountry and gauging them against the economic facts. "These lodgepole stands are low-value land. There's no demand for these trees. So of course you end up with subsidies. Wilderness in these areas benefits Idaho, because of the tourism, more than logging ever will. What the Forest Service is doing just doesn't make any economic sense."
Most people in Dixie, the town nearest the Jersey-Jack project, agree with Thomas. Dixie sits where Fourth of July Creek, Boulder Creek, and Crooked Creek meet and the canyon spreads out to form a meadow just flat and wide enough to allow the early morning sun to flow in. The small dirt-road, log-cabin settlement was founded in 1862 during the Idaho gold rush and once boomed to a population of nearly 5000, but it is now dependent on recreation, especially hunting. The area south of Dixie, of which the Jersey-Jack region is a part, is home to some of the finest elk herds in the world. The lodgepole forests, 6000 to 7000 feet in elevation, provide excellent summer range. For winter range, the herds move down to the Salmon River Breaks, where the high country breaks sharply down to the free-flowing river, at about 2000 feet. These steep, sunny slopes and bottomland offer warmth and nutritious tallgrasses for the grazing ungulates during the hard winter months.
Emmett and Zona Smith own Dixie Outfitters. Zona, lightheartedly efficient, handles the business side—the mailings, replies to inquiries, grocery purchases, bookkeeping, and tax returns. She also looks after the hunters, making sure they pack all of their gear, and cooks up hearty country breakfasts before they set out for their week-long hunts. Emmett handles the pack animals and equipment and guides the hunting parties. He knows this wild country cold.
Emmett and Zona explain that their customers, who come from all over the nation, want two things. One is trophy elk. The hunters also invariably want to take their pack trips into pristine country. The Smiths will show you numerous letters in their files to that effect, such as an inquiry from Texas asking whether Dixie Outfitters can assure their customers of "a remote wilderness area." The Texan was "not looking for a country club party type of hunt.... What it amounts to, is that we are tired of hunting in overcrowded areas with little game."
The Jersey-Jack road complex will transform all of this. Although most of the roads will be closed after logging, enforcement in large backcountry areas is difficult. Pickup-truck and trail-bike hunters will surely move in, and the herds will be depleted; these effects are already evident north of Dixie, where Burpee Road was cut into previously roadless country for logging. And Emmett Smith, backed up by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, knows that an increase in numbers of hunters will be coupled with the aversion of elk for roads. Elk seldom roam within half a mile of a road, so the Forest Service's transportation system will create mile-wide swaths through this prime elk habitat. Elk cows bear their calves in the spring, when, as Smith puts it, "they want complete solitude and silence. The cows won't drop their calves where there's a ruckus." Road graders to punch in logging roads, chain saws to fell the timber, and Caterpillar tractors and logging trucks to haul out the trees easily amount to a continuing series of ruckuses.
The animals will thus be pushed elsewhere, but the Smiths may not be able to follow. The Idaho state outfitters' board awards each licensed outfitter a territory—the idea is to ensure limited pressure from commercial parties (although private parties are free to hunt in any territory) and to guarantee party hunters an outfitter who knows the area. The Jersey-Jack area is in the heart of Smith's territory. Smith fully supports the state's system but, in the slow and easy drawl of his native Montana, explains in his precise way the effects of the roads on Dixie Outfitters. "Those roads would wipe us out. We'd just become a roadside lodge. We'd have no outfitting. That's what I enjoy. I'm no environmentalist, but I love this backcountry."
Harold Thomas, Emmett and Zona Smith, and other people who use the Jersey-Jack area, including hikers from Boise and Portland and owners and guests of the several nearby guest ranches, worry about things in addition to the elk. Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves, killed off south of the Canadian border decades ago, have returned. Expert outdoorsmen in Dixie have seen the wolves' paw prints and heard their piercing, one-of-a-kind, shiver-up-the-backbone howl. Wolves, even more than the elk, do not like human contact. Already on the endangered species list, they will be forced out if the Jersey-Jack road system goes ahead.
Further, these tendrils of roads will be constructed in the Idaho Batholith, an enormous pile of extraordinarily unstable granitic soils. Over the eons, granitic rock has been broken down and decomposed into powder by the grinding of the earth's crust and by the relentless freezes and thaws in this climate of violent annual temperature swings. In an undisturbed condition, these fine sandy loams are held in place by the root systems of the ground cover. But when the grasses and shrubs are torn off—as they repeatedly will be when logging roads are cut into the slopes—there will be a great deal of erosion. The research arm of the Forest Service (not the Nez Perce National Forest, which is planning the logging and roading) has found that "[b]atholith soils tend to be highly erodible and prone to mass soil movement particularly when disturbed by road construction and timber harvesting."
Even a layperson can appreciate these conclusions by expert soil scientists. When you dig your fingers into this gray dust-dirt and grab a handful, it seeps out or swirls away. It will not stay put in your hand. You can easily imagine that if strips of this land were raked open where there are slopes, the rain and snowmelt would cut gullies in the sugary stuff, the gullies would deepen and widen, and support for the rocks and trees on the canyon sides would be gouged out.
The landslides and slumps that the Jersey-Jack project will probably cause—the "mass soil movement" referred to by the Forest Service researchers—will end up in tributary streams like Mallard Creek and Jersey Creek and in the Salmon River itself, one of the world's great Pacific salmon and steelhead rivers. The ocean is more than 700 river miles from this stretch of the Salmon, but the fish nevertheless find their way as young smolt down to the Snake and Columbia rivers, then navigate as many as 2000 more miles out into the Pacific Ocean. They mature in the Gulf of Alaska and other rich ocean feeding grounds. Then, as adults, obeying some inner compass that scientists understand only vaguely, they fight their way back up the Columbia River system to the very spawning beds where they were hatched. The Salmon River chinook salmon, which grow to be as large as 40 pounds, are a prized commercial catch for the nation's dinner tables and are the quarry of offshore sport trolling rigs running out of coastal ports in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. The chinook are also the mainstay of the Indian treaty fishery on the main stem of the Columbia. The smaller steelhead—still a bruising fish that can reach 20 pounds—is a legendary tackle-buster, one of the world's great sport fish.
But the salmon and steelhead must have healthy gravel spawning beds to return to or the runs will not be perpetuated. Adult female fish will not drop their eggs in silt. No one can predict exactly how much damage this particular erosion from the Jersey-Jack project would wreak on the salmon and steelhead habitat, but it is indisputable that the rivers in the Pacific Northwest have been ravaged by events with a cumulative effect of gigantic proportions. No less than half of the entire Columbia River drainage has been shut off to migrating fish by dams and by blockages and sediment from logging, grazing, and mining. The habitat degradation continues, even though, as we have known since the great forester-naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote Game Management in 1933, good wildlife management depends on good habitat management.
The Salmon River near the Jersey-Jack area has already been hard hit. No dams have been built in the region, but downstream impoundments have taken a heavy toll on the upriver fish runs, and habitat continues to deteriorate, mainly from logging and roading. The fragile stocks of native fish are way down, and the chinook salmon in the Salmon River has been declared a threatened species. Harold Thomas's Allison Ranch is square on the banks of the Salmon, and a good many of his guests come there for the fishing. "It would be terribly expensive for the Forest Service to do what they should do to prevent the erosion at Jersey-Jack," says Thomas, "and there's no sign they intend to. We saw what massive logging does to the spawning grounds when they logged in the South Fork of the Salmon in the early 1960s. We nearly lost those runs because of those landslides. We're looking at the same kind of thing here."
Pyramid Lake is about 400 miles southwest of the Jersey-Jack area. People expect wild rivers in central Idaho but not broad, deep natural lakes in the sagebrush and juniper high desert country of Nevada. And so, whether it is your first visit to Pyramid Lake or your tenth or hundredth, you catch your breath as you come over a ridge and gaze out over this aquamarine sheet that stretches more than 30 miles off in the distance. Certainly that was the reaction of John Charles Frémont, whose expedition reached the lake in January 1844, making theirs the first known visit by white people: "It broke upon our eyes like the ocean.... The waves were curling in the breeze, and their dark-green color showed it to be a body of deep water.... It was set like a gem in the mountains, which, from our position, seemed to enclose it almost entirely." Frémont also gave the lake the name it bears today: "[W]e encamped on the shore, opposite a very remarkable rock in the lake, which had attracted our attention for many miles. It rose, according to our estimate, 600 feet above the water; and, from the point we viewed it, presented a pretty exact outline of the great pyramid of Cheops."
Frémont was a newcomer to Pyramid Lake. Paiute people have lived there since at least 2000 years before Christ was born. Their name for themselves is "cui-ui-dakado," meaning "cui-ui eaters." The cui-ui, which lives nowhere in the world except Pyramid Lake, is ugly to the uninitiated—a plump, brownish gray sucker—but the juicy flesh of these easily caught, good-sized fish (adults range from 2. to 6 pounds) has always been a staple in the diet of these Paiute people. Their other key food source was the Lahontan cutthroat trout, a strain of which is native to Pyramid Lake. These fish, when smoked and dried, once formed the basis of a bustling commercial trade for the tribe throughout the Great Basin and over to the Pacific Coast. The large, salmonesque Lahontans almost certainly approached 60 pounds in size; we know that they exceeded 40 pounds, because a tribal member named John Skimmerhorn caught a 41-pounder in 1925.
Other than a few small springs and ephemeral streams, the Truckee River is the only source of water for Pyramid Lake. The Truckee rises high in the Sierra Nevada as the outflow of Pyramid's sister lake, Tahoe, which is comparable in area and some 2400 feet higher in elevation. The Truckee River winds down the steep eastern flank of the Sierra through what is now downtown Reno to its terminus at the southern end of Pyramid Lake. The Paiutes placed their villages at the mouth of the Truckee because both the Lahontans and the cui-ui were migrating fish, living most of their lives in Pyramid Lake but moving up through the Truckee River system to spawn. The mouth of the Truckee served to funnel the fish to the Paiutes, with their nets, traps, and spears. Frémont's journal was expansive about this bounty:
An Indian brought in a large fish to trade, which we had the inexpressible satisfaction to find was a salmon trout; ... Their flavor was excellent—superior, in fact, to that of any fish I have ever known. They were of extraordinary size—about as large as the Columbia river salmon—generally from two to four feet in length.... They doubtless formed the subsistence of these people, who hold the fishery in exclusive possession.... These Indians were very fat, and appeared to live an easy and happy life.
The discovery of gold in California four years after Frémont's visit led to a spillover of population to Nevada, the opening of the fabulous Comstock Lode in 1859, and early statehood for Nevada in 1864. Conflicts over land arose between Indians and the new settlers of western Nevada. To alleviate tensions, in 1859 the Department of the Interior set aside the territory of the Pyramid Lake Band of Paiutes from settlement; this administrative action was confirmed by President Grant's executive order in 1874, which reserved 475,000 acres for the tribe. In recognition of the central place of Pyramid Lake in the existence of these Paiutes, the reservation is dominated by Pyramid Lake itself, with a strip of Indian land surrounding the lake and a 20-mile arm of land reaching up the lower end of the Truckee River. The late nineteenth century found the Paiutes' traditional way of life substantially unchanged, their millennia-old dependence on the lake's fishery still adequate to meet their needs. Indeed, the invention of an effective canning process allowed the Paiutes to expand their commercial use of the salmon-trout: by the 1870s, shipments of Lahontan cutthroat trout to restaurants and grocery stores across the country amounted to 25 to 50 tons each year.
Excerpted from Crossing the Next Meridian by Charles F. Wilkinson. Copyright © 1992 Charles F. Wilkinson. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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