Lost in the “Lost” Drainage
Story and Photos by Mike Medberry
In 1995, Rocky Barker, a writer for the Idaho Statesman, and I were in the air over the French Creek Roadless Area north of McCall in the Payette National Forest after the major Blackwell and Corral fires had burned through the drainage the previous year. I assumed the absolute “V” of the drainage hadn’t burned because I had hiked the upper part of French Creek after the fires, which had created a typical mosaic pattern: here charcoal, there green trees, and in riparian areas the damage was spotty. So I was surprised to see from the airplane that the lower portion of French Creek looked as if it had been set on fire with a welding torch. It had been a high-intensity fire, and much of the upper portion was scorched as well.
Many snags looked like used matchsticks in what was once my favorite forest in Idaho. I wondered what had happened to that drainage’s wildlife in their attempts to run or fly away. Rocky gave me a “Sorry, man,” look. I don’t remember what he wrote for the newspaper, although I would have expected a bleak story of a lost drainage. But I also knew he had a more complicated view of fire, having experienced the Yellowstone blaze years before. My view is that every forest burns and every forest will recover in time.
French Creek logging was planned by the Forest Service in the 1980s and the watershed was surveyed for road-building at least twice. Immediately after the 1995 fires, Sen. Larry Craig led Congress to the passage of legislation suspending preparation of an environmental analysis for the French Creek roadless area, which made timber sales easier to achieve and impossible to challenge legally. I figured the environment would be the long-term loser, with roads and clearcuts covering what until then had been a wild landscape. Once the French Creek timber sales were excluded from the rules of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) they were on the fast track, and that’s when I asked Rocky to look at the area. I assumed the press would be a powerful voice for protection.