Nez Perce Clearwater Forests Plan Leaves Out Protection For Many Wildlands

Lochsa River on the Nez Perce Clearwater NF, Idaho. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Nez Perce Clearwater National Forests in central-northern Idaho contain more wildlands than almost any other national forest in the lower 48 states. Recently, the Forest released its forest plan on November 28, 2023, which will determine the management for the next 10-30 years. The public has 60 days to comment on the plan. Two organizations working to protect the wildlands of the Nez Perce Clearwater National Forests are the Friends of the Clearwater and Alliance for Wild Rockies. Both groups are worthy of your financial support, but also have a tremendous amount of information on the area.

The Friends of the Clearwater have a webpage devoted to the inadequacy of the forest plan here.


Rafting the Lochsa River, Idaho. Photo George Wuerthner 

I first viewed the Nez Perce Clearwater National Forests as a freshman at the University of Montana.

During my spring break in March, I took off hitchhiking to see California. On my way back to Missoula, I crossed Idaho on Highway 12, which follows the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers.

In those days, there was almost no traffic on Highway 12 between Kooskia, Idaho, and Missoula in the wintertime. The last ride of my trip took me along the Lochsa River.

The forests were all covered with snow. In the nearly 130 miles between Kooskia, Idaho and Lolo, Montana near Missoula, we saw almost no other cars. It was the wildest country I had ever seen in my life up to that point.

The journey’s highlight was seeing three elk in the middle of the Lochsa River with snow coming down on them. They looked up at our car as we slowly drove past. That image of a wild elk, in a wild river, in a wild place is forever etched on my mind.

Old growth western red cedar along the North Fork of the Clearwater, Idaho George Wuerthner 

While living in Missoula, I continuously explored the 4 million-acre Nez Perce Clearwater National Forests Wildlands. By comparison, Yellowstone National Park is 2.2 million acres. I loved the lush landscape (Interior rainforest), stunningly clear rivers, and rugged mountains.


Canoeing the Salmon River, River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho. Photo George Wuerthner

The national forests contain part of the bulk of the 1.3-million-acre Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, the 205,796 acres Gossip Hump Wilderness, and approximately 60,000 acres of the Hells Canyon Wilderness which straddles the Oregon-Idaho border and the northern portion of the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness.

The Rapid River trail in the proposed Rapid River additions to Hells Canyon Wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner 

Despite all these significant wilderness areas, the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests also has more unprotected wildlands than just about any national forest in the lower 48 states. The forest is a critical component for the recovery of grizzly bear, bull trout, salmon, and steelhead. It once had woodland caribou.

Unbelievably the Forest Plan’s Biological Assessment deems the grizzly bear “socially unacceptable” in all areas of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests outside of Wilderness or inventoried roadless lands.”

The Selway River flows through the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner 

The opportunities for additional wilderness are significant. For instance, approximately 440,000 acres of roadless wildlands are adjacent to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. These are comprised of Meadow Creek (215,000 acres), Rackliff-Gedney (90,000 acres), Lochsa Slope (75,000 acres), North Fork Spruce (36,000 acres), and Sneakfoot Meadows (23,000 acres).

On November 28, 2023, the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests released its forest plan and comments will be accepted until January 29th. The “good news” is that the Forest proposes 263,000 acres as recommended wilderness. However, this is just 17% of the 1.5 million acres of remaining roadless lands on the forest. It’s important to note that only Congress can designate wilderness. Still, if a forest recommends wilderness, it suggests the agency will manage it for wilderness values until such time as Congress determines it fate.

The Rapid River in the Seven Devil’s Mountains. Photo George Wuerthner 

Three areas are recommended by the Forest Service for wilderness: Great Burn, East Meadow Creek and Mallard Larkins. However, other important roadless areas, including Upper North Fork (of the Clearwater), Pot Mountain, Weitas Creek, Loshsa Slope, Sneakfoot Spruce, Fish and Hungery Creek, Rackliff Gedney Cove-Mallard, Rapid River, and Gospel Hump additions, were all left out of the recommended wilderness. You can see maps of these areas here.

The 1993 lawsuit settlement agreement on the challenge to the Clearwater Plan resulted in an agreement that about 558,000 roadless acres would be managed as recommended Wilderness, though the FS referred to those areas as settlement agreement areas. This is slightly more than double what is recommended now in the Forest Plan.

These areas amounted to most of the Great Burn, the current recommended boundary on Mallard-Larkins, most of Weitas Creek, about half of Fish and Hungery Creeks (the actual drainage basin), most of the upper North Fork and additions to the Selway-Bitterroot around Elk Summit. Obviously the FS is not honoring its agreement, as many of these areas were left out of its wilderness recommendations.

Moose Mountain roadless area. Photo George Wuerthner

First, I will briefly discuss the three recommended wilderness areas, starting with Mallard Larkens, the most northern of the three recommended areas.

Larken Lake in Mallard Larkens recommended wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner


The 255,700-acre Mallard Larkins roadless area is the largest in northern Idaho. It lies between the St. Joe and Clearwater River drainages. Elevations of the highest peaks lie just under 7,000 feet.

It was first described as suitable for wilderness in a 1973 Living Wilderness article. Part is on the adjacent Idaho Panhandle National Forest. In 1969, a 30,000 acres in the highest peaks was designated a “Pioneer Area”. The area is the headwaters for the St. Joe, Little North Fork of the Clearwater and Clearwater Rivers.

Mountain goats visit camper in Mallard Larkens recommended wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner

The area supports some of the larger trees of the Disjunct Interior Rainforest. The Heritage Cedar Grove is an old-growth stand of western red cedar that survived the 1910 Big Burn. A portion of the Larkins is recommended for the wilderness by the Forest Service. There are 38 lakes scattered about the higher elevations of the roadless area. Overall the FS recommendation is good except excludes the Elizabeth Lakes country.


Snags remain from the 1910 Big Burn that charred more than 3 million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana. Photo George Wuerthner

The s 252,000 acres s Hoodoo Roadless area straddles the Montana-Idaho border. The area has been featured in a National Geographic book about wildlands.  There are a string of glacial cirque lakes that lie along the state line like blue jewels.

However, the area is best known by its alternative name: The Great Burn. The name recognizes how the 1910 Burn which covered more than 3-3.5 million acres of northern Idaho and western Montana in less than 2 days blazed across this landscape. It’s important to note that this fire occurred long before any Forest Service fire suppression. Rather the wildfire was driven by drought, high temperatures, low humidity and most importantly high winds.

Due to the fire, much of the higher elevations are still free of heavy forest giving the area an alpine feel at much lower elevations than other areas in the region.

Winter campsite on stateline, Great Burn. Photo George Wuerthner 

The area is home to elk, mountain goats, black bear, and fisher. I once saw wolverine tracks while skiing on the State-line Trail. It is a likely corridor for grizzly recolonization of the Central Idaho Ecosystem.

Kelly Creek, one of the drainages in the Great Burn proposed for Wild and Scenic designaiton. Photo George Wuerthner

The roadless area contains four streams recommended for Wild and Scenic designation: Kelly Creek, North Fork Kelly Creek, Middle Fork Kelly Creek, and South Fork Kelly Creek.

Giant old-growth western red cedar groves are found within the proposed Great Burn Wilderness.

Old growth western red cedar on the West Fork of Fish Creek on the Montana side of the Great Burn. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Great Burn of the Nez Perce Clearwater Forest should be linked to the Lolo National Forest roadless lands to create a large single unit wildlands.

Straight Peak is one of the highest summits on the Montana side of the proposed wilderness. Years ago I backpacked down Straight Creek with the poet Gary Snyder. Snyder wrote a poem about the trip.

While the FS recommended some of the Great Burn, their proposal actually slices the area in two with mountain bikes being allowed on the state line trail (currently closed to that use) and the northern part of the roadless area on the Clearwater is being dropped from wilderness recommendation even though it was included in the 1987 plan. There is also a chunk taken out on the south that was included in the 1987 plan too. However, the FS did add some to their 1987 recommendation around Kelly Creek proper.


The 96,000 acre East and 115,000 acre West Meadow Creek roadless areas form the western boundary of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. Meadow Creek is one of the major tributaries of the Selway River and chinook salmon, steelhead, bull trout, red band trout and westslope cutthroat trout. At one time Meadow Creek was proposed for wilderness. There is a National Recreation Trail along Meadow Creek. Years ago I hiked this trail through shady western red cedar forests. The forest plan recommends about a thrid of Meadow Creek for Wilderness and leaves out a large part of the southern portion of the roadless area from recommended wilderness.

Map of roadless lands



The larger roadless area on the forest is the 254,000-acre Bighorn-Weitas Creek area.  This is bigger than many existing wilderness areas like the 217,000-acre Sawtooth Wilderness further south in Idaho.  We don’t get many chances to protect such large wild areas anymore. Yet the FS recommended wilderness because it argues it needs to do “vegetative management” code for logging, and it would infringe on motorized use (mostly dirt bikes) on some of the trails.

Two drainages, Weitas Creek and Cayuse Creek make up the bulk of the roadless areas.

The lower elevations are dominated by western red cedar and hemlock forests—the Interior rainforest. Higher elevations are lodgepole pine. The area contains some of the largest stands of old growth on the forest.


Upper North Fork of the Clearwater. Photo George Wuerthner 

Not to be confused with the Meadow Creek that borders the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness to the south, the Meadow Creek-Upper North Fork area lies between Mallard Larkens and the Hoodoo (Great Burn) recommended wilderness and can create a natural linkage to create a much larger protected landscape.

Upper North Fork of the Clearwater River, Idaho, Photo George Wuerthner 

The Meadow Creek Upper North Fork area’s apparent naturalness is high, ecological processes are functioning, natural integrity is high and opportunity for solitude and primitive and unconfined recreation is high. It also has no livestock grazing, timber harvest, or mining. Despite all these attributes, the FS has recommended against wilderness for this area, asserting that they need to be able to use prescribed fire and wildlands fires to manage the area to preclude “catastrophic” wildfire. It is ironic that the main reason for precluding wilderness recommendations is to prevent natural ecological processes like large wildfire events, which are critical to ecosystem health.



Fish Creek, an important spawning site for chinook salmon and steelhead. Photo George Wuerthner 

The 118,000 acre Fish and Hungery Creek roadless area lies north of the Lochsa River and just south of the Bighorn Weitas roadless area. The streams like Fish Creek provide spawning habitat for Chinook salmon and steelhead, while the lower portion of the roadless areas is winter range for elk, moose, and deer. The lowest point of 1,600 feet lies along the Lochsa River, while the highest point is 6,600 feet at Castle Butte, providing a significant elevational gradient.

Fish Creek roadless area. Photo George Wuerthner

The area is representative of the Interior rainforest and includes the 1,300-acre Lochsa Research Natural Area was established in 1977 to protect and study the unique Pacific Coast vegetation that occurs within the roadless area boundaries. Flowering dogwood and 14 other plant species that are not normally found east of the Cascade Mountains grow in this Research Natural Area.


Lochsa River marks the boundary of the Lochsa Slope. Photo George Wuerthner 

The 75,000 acre Lochsa Slope Roadless is adjacent to the northern fringes of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. Elevations vary from 2,000 feet along the Lochsa to 7,500 feet at Tom Beal Peak. Thirteen creeks drain into the Lochsa River providing clear, cool water for trout. The area surrounds the Jerry Johnson Hot Springs which is well known and heavily visited site.

SNEAKFOOT-SPRUCE (Also known as Elk Summit)

Moose Butte, Clearwater NF, Idaho

The 23,000 acre Sneakfoot Spruce lies along the northern border of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and includes Colt Killed Creek. The area has wet meadows and several lakes. The highest elevations are just under 8,000 feet. The area is dominated by spruce-fir forests and some lodgepole where the area burned during the early part of the 1900s. The Elk Summit moose herd is considered one of the largest in northern Idaho.


The 90,000 acre Rackliff Gedney roadless area lies between the Lochsa and Selway Rivers and adjacent to the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. There is a rough road that leads to Coolwater Lookout that almost bisects the roadless area in the region known as the Selway Crags. Like other areas in this region, a significant portion of this roadless are burned in the 1900s. Forest includes lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, and scattered whitebark stands. Several sensitive plant species are present, including Payson’s milkvetch, lance-leaved milkwort, Northern moonwort, Constance’s bittercress, Pacific Dogwood, Daubenmire’s dasynotus, clustered lady’s-slipper, Evergreen kittentail, and bank monkeyflower.


The 64,000 acre Cove Mallard Roadless area lies just north of the River of No Return Wilderness. It was the scene of a major battle between wilderness advocates who sought to preclude timber sales in the area and the Forest Service. A few of the timber sales have occurred reducing the original roadless lands by 13,000 acres, but the remainder of the area should be protected as wilderness.

The rolling terrain of the Cove Mallard is largely covered by lodgepole pine.

The Cove Mallard is an important corridor linking the Gospel Hump Wilderness and the No Return Wilderness. It is home to the usual species from elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Wolves are known to frequent the area.


Old growth ponderosa pine is found at lower elevations along the Salmon River Breaks proposed additions to the Gospel Hump Wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner

There are about 55,000 acre that could added to the 206,000 acre Gospel Hump Wilderness is one of the least visited wildernesses in the lower 48 states. It was established in 1978 as part of the Endangered American Wilderness Act. Elevations in the wilderness range from about 2,000 feet along the Salmon River to nearly 9,000 feet on Buffalo Hump Peak.

Much of the landscape is higher elevation forest of lodgepole pine with some spruce-fir but large old growth ponderosa pine exists along the Salmon River Breaks country. The West Fork Crooked River which flows into the South Fork of the Clearwater River is a stronghold for Bull trout.


Write the Nez Perce Clearwater Forest and ask them to expand their recommended wilderness to include all the areas described above. Mention each roadless area by name. Also encourage them to protect these areas for carbon storage and their wildlife values for fisheries and ESA listed species like wolverine, lynx and grizzly bear. For more on the forest plan see the Friends of the Clearwater Forest Plan commentary.  To submit an objection to the Forest plan go here.


  1. Cathy Taibbi Avatar
    Cathy Taibbi

    Is there a way to post this on my Facebook page?

  2. david Avatar

    Thank you, comments have been sent.

  3. Wayne Tyson Avatar
    Wayne Tyson

    My buddy George and I flew into the Clearwater and landed on a gravel bar ca 1964, before the dam. We followed the FBO from Kellogg in. We caught whitefish and stayed with some elk researchers a few days, then flew one of them out.

    I sure appreciate what you do; it needs to be spread wider and farther. Designations are just holding “zoning” for timber that the industry doesn’t intend to use at the moment. DEDICATIONS should require a 2/3 vote to vacate.

  4. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    George, please share your insights into the Natural Asset mgmnt plans. Lots of talk about it, many concerns on the Conservative news side (no surprises)
    just asking Thank you


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner