The grass is lush and green at the U.S. Forest Service ranger station near Selway Falls on the banks of the fabled Selway River. A big-bellied man with camouflage pants and scruffy face likes to talk, too.

“There’s a road up there above Gedney Creek, but it don’t go nowhere. It’s what we used to call a way route. If there’s a will there’s a way, but you’d better have a lot of will to find your way.”

He chuckles, then rambles on about federal classifications for dirt roads, about the perilous nature of the Selway River, about the thickness of the forest and the abundant wilderness surrounding this place.

The woman sitting on the cabin’s front steps is wearing U.S. Forest Service fatigues. There’s a pack near her feet with a radio antenna protruding from an open zipper. She scans the greenery near her feet and plucks a mint leaf. I do the same, and we begin to chew.

The big belly man with the scruffy face, who says he’s from Wisconsin, turns and goes round the side of the cabin, returning a minute later with a fist full of leaves.

“Try one,” he says. “It’s catnip. Supposed to calm your nerves.”

Clearwater Country

The Clearwater country of northern Idaho stands in stark contrast with southern Idaho’s sagebrush deserts and arid mountain ranges. Irrigation in this moist climate isn’t required, and with the exception of hydro-electric dams the rivers run clean and cold.

I’m nearing the end of a 1,000-mile, five-day trip that began in Boise and has threaded Idaho south to north. I’ve become attuned to the rivers that pump through this big state’s heart, and I’ve seen dozens. From south to north I’ve navigated the basins of the Boise, Payette, Salmon, Clearwater, Lochsa and Selway. All were salmon country before Europeans moved here. Some are still.

There’s a high plain near here called the Camas Prairie, a peninsula in the midst of some of the greatest of these rivers. To the south over White Bird Summit is a steep, grassy grade descending to the lower twists of the Salmon River. To the west are the desert canyons of the Snake, a river whose headwaters begin as a trickle in Yellowstone National Park. To the east is the South Fork of the Clearwater, which drops through deep timbered rainforests before converging with the Middle Fork of the Clearwater, a roiling expanse that drains the Bitterroot and Clearwater mountains on the Montana-Idaho border. It is the Clearwater River that borders the Camas Prairie to the north.

This is also Nez Perce country. It was along White Bird Creek that the first shots in the Nez Perce War betwen Native Americans and the U.S. Army were fired on June 17, 1877. That battle was a route the Indians won, but it triggered a flight that led the Indians far from their ancestral homeland. This is Lewis and Clark country, too. It was the Clearwater River that led the team west to the Snake, to the Columbia and, eventually, to the Pacific, a journey the salmon once made on their youthful pilgrimages to the ocean, where they matured before returning to these same mountains to renew the circle of life.

A Landscape Logged

The primary resource concern in northern Idaho is logging. The economy here was built in large part on this extractive industry, and there’s a pulp mill downstream in Lewiston where the big trees are processed. Potlatch Corp. was founded in 1903 in the city of Potlatch, Idaho, and is a “verified leader in sustainable forestry.

Potlatch produces paper towels, napkins, bathroom tissue and facial tissues, with additional production of paperboard that’s sold all over the world for products like CD covers and cigarette cartons. Branches in St. Maries and Post Falls, both Idaho cities, produce lumber, plywood and particleboard. The abundant forests in Idaho make this operation possible.

A Landscape Dammed

Compared with arid southern Idaho, north Idaho is relatively free of scarring impacts of dams, and, yet, it is in this region that the debate over dams is coming to a head.

The massive ramparts of Dworshak Dam loom above the timber town of Orofino. This 717-foot-tall structure, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is the third tallest dam in the U.S. and creates a 53-mile-long reservoir that submerges the North Fork of the Clearwater River and its ample salmon and steelhead spawning habitat. Completed in 1972, Dworshak was built to provide hydroelectric power, and the generators came online in 1973.

Two miles below Dworshak, on the banks of the Clearwater River, is the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, built by the Corps of Engineers to mitigate the loss of salmon and steelhead spawning habitat in the North Fork of the Clearwater basin. This is, according to the Corps, the largest steelhead hatchery in the world. For a person standing at the overlook above Dworshak there is an evident irony: electricity is produced by harnessing Mother Nature’s power and nearby factories produce more fish, all within eyeshot of one another. Humans make the fish. Mother Nature makes the electricity.

Downstream, however, on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state, is where an ongoing debate over how to recover salmon and steelhead is maturing. There are four dams on the lower Snake that produce both a small percentage of the Northwest’s hydroelectric power and establish Lewiston as an ocean port. But these benefits come at a cost, effectively blocking downstream and upstream migration of salmon and steelhead. Idaho has habitat. What it doesn’t have are fish.

The Selway

The woman sitting on the steps of the cabin near the Selway River says she’s a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. She flies into and out of the Moose Creek Guard Station to keep an eye on what’s going on inside the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area’s boundaries.

The 251,443-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is the third largest wilderness area in the lower 48, surpassed only by the Death Valley Wilderness in California and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, farther south in Idaho. This vast area is one of the roughest mountainous areas on earth, a country of high, glaciated mountains and towering ridges dropping into sheer-walled canyons.

And the Selway country contains thousands of rivers and creeks, tributaries like Meadow Creek and Gedney Creek. They’re swift, clean and cold, and they illustrate once again that Idaho has what it takes to make salmon and steelhead recovery possible. Fish-making factories like the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery are merely life-support systems, helping sustain populations while people work to address the root of the problem, the four dams on the lower Snake River. Idaho has habitat. What it needs are fish.

The wilderness ranger says she’s seen giant chinook spawning in the streams and brooks of the upper Selway, but she doesn’t see many, “and that’s too bad.”

But her observation illustrates that the Clearwater Country of northern Idaho is representative of the foremost challenge facing the planet and its people today, that of working toward balance and sustainability rather than profit alone. Working toward sustainability is about finding common ground.

While figuring out what to do next is heavily disputed, there is common ground throughout the Northwest, affectionately referred to by some as the Salmon Nation. And that mutual footing is the overriding sentiment that healthy salmon runs are good for the environment, good for people and good for business.

With that, anyway, there is a starting point.

© Greg Stahl