The closure of large portions of Idaho’s backcountry because of fire spreads the economic impact of climate change into Idaho's recreation industry.
Early in the season Idaho tourism people put out a press release telling potential visitors to come to Idaho because it wasn't suffering in drought like the Southwest. But now fire is making them pay as well.
The closed areas in the Boise National Forrest are not necessarily centers of economic activity. Featherville and Atlanta have stores and bars and gas stations. But the visitors who camp and stay in cabins in those areas stock up on food and $3.55 gasoline to get to their favorite fishing spot, hiking trail or ATV route.
And the on again, off again closure of Idaho 55 gives people heading to McCall, Cascade, Warm Lake or other popular summer destinations second thoughts, which is shaving off the peak of the height of the summer tourism season. The same is true for Idaho 21 between Lowman and Stanley.
Luckily, Idaho’s Salmon River outfitters, who account for more than 10,000 visitors, have not yet been hit except perhaps by smoke. But that too can change as they well know. Remember 2000?
Since 2006 forest scientists like Tom Swetnam of the University of Arizona have documented that the size and ferocity of the West’s fires are driven by global warming. Rapid climate change has brought earlier springs and warmer summers that make the fire season longer and create unusually fierce fire behavior.
This season began in Idaho with the mountains full of snow and a wet spring. It was the kind of year in the past when Idaho’s forests could expect a rather easy fire season.
“Idaho is the place to go rafting this year since the rest of the West is struggling with low flows,” said Ron Abramovich, Idaho snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Boise in an Idaho Tourism press release. “The mountains still have plenty of snow to sustain the river flows throughout the summer months.”
But then July turned hot, the fourth hottest in Boise history and the hottest in the nation ever. Fire danger rose as the woods dried out and the temperatures rose even in the high country.
Even Idaho’s steelhead are staying away because of the heat. Water temperatures on the Snake River are 70 degrees and higher, making it a place that trout and salmon don’t like. So the steelhead are hanging out below in the Columbia and many of the expected run are may not come home at all.
With a month left in the summer tourism season, the full impact of the fires has yet to be felt. More fires will start and the fires will continue into the fall, affecting hunters and fall campers.
I can imagine a time in the future when some enterprising outfitter puts together trips to experience and learn about fire in the West. It will happen when they can predict there will be enough fire burning in the summer to find it annually.
Adventure travelers will want to get close enough to see the kind of fires drivers on 55 can see daily right now. It would cause all kinds of headache for firefighters but I would guess that there were some Boise residents who will take a drive this weekend just to check out the flames.
I saw those people in Yellowstone in 1988. On the day of the biggest firestorm at Old Faithful as park officials were evacuating hotel guests and workers, they allowed 1,000 people into the area to view the great geyser and the fires.
For the record, I had to run for my life that day because I was a fool. No one got hurt, but we all breathed a heck of a lot of smoke.