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Area Feels Awash in Broken Promises

by David Johnson
Lewiston Tribune, December 26, 2009

Management of Dworshak park makes Idaho's budget cutting list

(Lewiston Tribune) The spillways of Dworshak Dam churn out excess water in April 2008. AHSAHKA, Idaho - Almost 25 years ago, at the age of 81, former Orofino Mayor A.B. (Bert) Curtis sat in his wheelchair at the base of Dworshak Dam, declared the monolith a success and predicted the 53-mile-long reservoir behind it would forever be a recreational Mecca to Clearwater County.

Today, those who knew Curtis say he might be drowning in regret amid broken promises.

"I would hope he didn't visualize it being like it is," said former Idaho state Sen. Marguerite McLaughlin of Orofino. "The promises were made, but they weren't kept."

The federal government, say those who remember, promised that halting the free-flowing North Fork of the Clearwater River would be mitigated, in part, by the creation of a huge lake where fishing, boating and camping would replace the kind of rugged canyon recreation the river had offered.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the dam and is charged with flood control, power production and providing water for downstream flushing of hatchery-produced anadromous fish. All of which requires the reservoir to be drawn down during the peak summer recreation season. Starting immediately after the Fourth of July weekend, water can begin to drop, depending on downstream need of volume and temperature control, at a daily rate of 2 feet.

"They have many, many campsites all around the lake that are very nice," said Orofino Mayor Ryan Smathers. "But if you have to climb up 80 feet of mud with your coolers and tents to get there, nobody is going to use them."

Enter officials from the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, who recently announced their intentions to abandon management of Dworshak State Park. The park includes Freeman Creek Campground, Three Meadows Group Camp, and Big Eddy Lodge and Marina. While the corps owns the park grounds, IDPR has managed the facilities for the better part of two decades.

But, faced with an immediate $147,000 shortfall in operating funds and a potential for more cuts, IDPR Director Nancy Merrill says her agency can no longer afford to manage the park. "When the board had to make this decision, it was almost like losing one of their children," Merrill told officials here after members of the IDPR board of directors voted for abandonment.

Steve Klatt, chairman of the IDPR board of directors, said the decision hinged partially on the fact that annual park operation costs are around $430,000, while revenues are around $280,000. "We'd rather go through the pain and discomfort of closing individual units," Klatt explained, than to go through the attrition of decreasing "our level of service to every park we own until all we have are 30 dysfunctional state parks."

If the promise to leave Dworshak Reservoir full through Labor Day weekend of every year had been kept, there would be no need, as there was during the mid-1990s, for the Orofino Chamber of Commerce and Clearwater Resource Coalition to attempt to block the annual drawdowns through legal action. "Our position now is there's not much we can do," said John Goffinet, president of the Orofino Chamber of Commerce. "We'd just hate to lose those facilities up there. The way our economy is in this area, every little thing makes a big difference."

McLaughlin agrees. "It (the dam) was sold here on grounds that there would be recreation available. And, of course, there is. But it's pretty limited. If you don't keep the water, you don't have much recreation."

In a county that wrestles with annual unemployment between 16 percent and 20 percent, every recreation dollar becomes critical, say McLaughlin and the others.

"When they started drawing down the reservoir, that's when we realized how valuable those campgrounds were to the community," Smathers said. "It took away those campsites around the lake that are boat accessible."

David Johnson
Area Feels Awash in Broken Promises
Lewiston Tribune, December 26, 2009

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