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Salmon Float Restrictions Revised

by Greg Stahl
Idaho Mountain Express, August 11, 2004

Forest Service adjusts the 'redd factor'

Since 1996, rafters and kayakers on the upper Salmon River near Stanley have been forced to portage long stretches of river to protect spawning salmon that might not have been in the river. That is changing.

In an effort to protect the anadromous fish and to improve conditions for rafters and kaykers, the U.S. Forest Service has implemented new floating restrictions it believes im-prove on the cumbersome regulations it first adopted in 1996.

In May, the Forest Service an-nounced the decision to implement the new plan, which includes voluntary "tread lightly" ethics and an en-tire river closure late in the season. It was well received by at least one outfitter in the area.

"We've been working toward this for the last eight years. It's definitely a major improvement," said Randy Hess, who owns Sunbeam-based White Otter Outdoor Adventures. "I mean, why have we been portaging around places where there are no fish?"

During the month of August, the whitewater rapids and deep gravel-bed pools of the Salmon River are appealing places for rafters seeking solace from the summer heat, as well as for threatened chinook salmon that are returning from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in the deep, cool water.

The stretch of river contains important spawning habitat for the threatened species, listed in 1992 under the Endangered Species Act.

Fundamentally, the new plan trades a host of complex floating restrictions during the month of August, and limited floating during the core spawning period in September, for much greater floating opportunity in August, balanced with total protection for spawning salmon in September.

Under the previous Forest Service regulations, as soon as a fish began to spawn anywhere in the river, rafters were required to portage two lengthy sections of water where the fish traditionally establish their spawning beds, called redds.

Before fish began spawning, boaters were restricted to floating during six-hour windows of the day between Aug. 10 and Aug. 20. There were also limits on the number of boats outfitters were allowed to run, but there were no limits for the general floating public.

Finally, there was a penalty points system by which an outfitter or private boaters could be prevented from putting on the river if they violated the rules.

Private floaters were turned away in 1996, 1997 and 2003 for violations.

"It's a hard thing to explain to people," said Eric McQuay, Sawtooth National Recreation Area recreation program manager. "It was a real burden when they had to portage when what they were protecting wasn't even there yet."

In 2000, SNRA officials began an environmental assessment to determine the best way to manage floating on the river. By 2003, a final environmental document was written, and a decision notice was signed last spring.

"The floating windows--gone. The boat limits--gone. The mandatory portage as soon as spawning begins--gone," McQuay said.

Rather than overwhelm outfitters and private floaters with regulations, the new rules will hinge on their cooperation. "Quiet zones" have been established and will be implemented on Aug. 15 at the two largest traditional spawning areas, called Indian Riffle and Torrey's Hole.

"We're going to let you float through those areas with redds, but all we want you to do is steer--no playing, no splashing," McQuay said. As redds are established in other sections of the river, they will also be designated as "quiet zones."

"This will allow us to continue to provide a boating opportunity while we continue to provide sufficient protections for the salmon," McQuay said.

Also on Aug. 15, most of the river corridor outside of the "Day Stretch" and a section downstream of Stanley will be closed to floating. Most of those sections are too low for rafting in August, anyway.

From Sept. 2 to Sept. 22, the river will be closed completely.

McQuay said the response to the changes has been positive, in general.

"It's way simpler. The general public can read one sign and make sense of it," he said. "For the most part, we've been able to provide almost a full floating season."

SNRA Backcountry Ranger Ed Cannady stressed the importance of the quiet zones.

"This system hinges a lot on the public to take this seriously," he said. "If people will just honor the quiet zones, this will allow everyone to float unimpeded until Sept. 3."

Chinook salmon travel 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean to return to the water of their birth to renew the life cycle.

"In a few weeks, you'll be able to start watching fish. It's just magnificent," Cannady said. "It's amazing to watch these extraordinary animals literally beating themselves to death to dig a redd in the gravel."

SNRA River Ranger Will Smith said the redds are about the size of a raft, and it usually takes a female fish about a week to build one.

Last year in Indian Riffle, there were 150 redds in about a half mile of river, Smith said. Each redd had one female and one or two males tending to it.

"This is a small price to pay to share this section of river with an endangered species," Cannady said. "It can and should work."

Greg Stahl
Salmon Float Restrictions Revised
Idaho Mountain Express - August 11, 2004

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