By Greg Stahl, Assistant Policy Director
Neil Ever Osborne stood at his tripod in the mud and snapped the day’s final photographs of the most pristine salmon-spawning habitat on Earth.
A photographer with the International League of Conservation Photographers, Osborne traveled to central Idaho two weeks ago to document the clear, cold, pristine rivers and landscapes that constitute some of the world’s most well-protected wild country.
In the dim, diffused glow of a cloud-covered twilight near the banks of upper Marsh Creek, I looked at the vista and considered the blur that had been the previous four days, a wide-ranging tour of central Idaho’s intact wildlife habitat—the Salmon River, Redfish Lake, Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Bear Valley Creek, Marsh Creek and a dozen places between.
I’d seen almost all these beautiful landscapes before, some of them two or three dozen times, but the experience had been somehow different. I know this country, its people and its history, but seeing the landscape through the lens of a visiting photographer focused on the interconnected nature of a salmon-dependent ecosystem underscored the magnitude of the tragic decline of Idaho’s once-potent runs of anadromous fish.
It’s difficult to convey in words because we say it all the time: With thousands of miles of cold, clean rivers nestled by grass- and willow-covered riverbanks, Idaho has one-of-a-kind salmon habitat. With dams downstream on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers blocking the natural migration corridor, what it doesn’t have are self-sustaining populations of wild fish.
But that is the central purpose for the partnership between Save Our Wild Salmon and the International League of Conservation Photographers, for which IRU handled on-the-ground logistical and tour guiding support in Idaho. As part of a project called Tripods in the Mud, Osborne is photographing these postcard-perfect places, and his beautiful images tell the story of a rich landscape that has evolved with salmon, is dependent on salmon and is still capable of supporting healthy, self-sustaining runs of wild salmon and steelhead.
“Sometimes the story has to stop being about following the science or complying with the Endangered Species Act,” reflected SOS communications specialist Emily Nuchols. “This is about telling the story of the Snake River’s one-of-a-kind salmon—their strength, resiliency and the true miracle of life—as well as the wild place they return to.”
At 900 miles, the stretches of river between the Pacific Ocean and the Sawtooth Valley of central Idaho constitute the longest migration route for salmon and steelhead today in the Columbia River Basin. In the world of the massive Columbia River drainage, the Snake River once produced more than half of all the chinook salmon and steelhead. In that world of tributaries, the Salmon River alone produced 39 percent of all the spring and summer chinook and 45 percent of all the steelhead in the entire Columbia basin.
“The take-home message from that is, for the folks who like to de-emphasize the importance of lower-Snake dam removal, we’re missing the biggest single opportunity in the entire Columbia system,” said Tom Stuart, an IRU board member who hosted the team at his home in Stanley during the weeklong photo shoot. “The habitat is intact and protected, but we’ve got to deal with the bottleneck. There’s rearing habitat in the ocean, and there’s spawning habitat here in central Idaho.”
On the banks of upper Marsh Creek near Cape Horn, light continued to fade as raindrops began to spatter the sweeping meadow where the creek gently meandered over fist-size gravel. Satisfied with the day’s work—which included shoots at Redfish Lake, the headwaters of the Salmon River, Bear Valley Creek and Marsh Creek—Osborne packed his camera and tripod, and we trudged through the meadow back to a waiting car.
As we drove across the upper reaches of Marsh Creek, I shared a subtle personal revelation that had coalesced during the week. I’ve driven, hiked, camped and boated this landscape so many times, I said. But it seems like every time I arrive in central Idaho I’m on my way to some grand adventure. This trip was really good for me. I knew this habitat was here. Now, after a week of quietly sitting and looking, I can feel it.
We drove past Marsh Creek’s headwaters, across the subtle divide between watersheds and continued along the upper reaches Valley Creek, another Sawtooth Mountain stream that historically supported huge runs of anadromous fish.
Everything a person can see from the mountains and valleys around Stanley, Idaho, is perfectly engineered by Mother Nature for salmon and steelhead. After a week of traveling the creeks, rivers and meadows of central Idaho, one can’t help but observe that the Gem State has what it takes to recover these precious endangered species. The land and rivers are all encompassing and pristine.
“It’s time for us to get to the heart of the matter, and through Neil’s inspiring and provocative images, I think we do just that,” Nuchols said. “On this trip we immersed ourselves in their habitat, the rugged mountains and rivers of the Sawtooth Valley. And later this summer we’ll be back, this time to welcome these iconic fish home.”