Salmon-Challis, Lemhi County reach plowing pact

SALMON — The Salmon-Challis National Forest and Lemhi County have agreed on a plan designed to keep open a road along the Salmon River north of here amid severe winter conditions.

Under the plan, the Salmon-Challis and the county will seek to work together to respond to emergencies that impact the forest’s Salmon River Road, a dirt road west of North Fork that winds along the waterway and which is the only vehicular route available to people whose homes and property are in the area.

The agreement, announced by officials this week, defines what constitutes emergencies, which, broadly, are tied to snow slide or avalanche conditions that completely restrict access or “the critical transport of residents to a health care facility,” according to the forest.

The plan comes after this past winter’s series of avalanches, slides and other safety hazards that led the forest to impose a weeks-long closure of 40-plus miles of the roadway. The 50 or so people who live in the area said the closure left them stranded and triggered a temporary halt in the delivery of U.S. mail, including needed prescription medicines, amid an unusually harsh winter.

The forest said at the time that challenges, including lack of money, government rules and safety concerns, hampered their ability to routinely provide snow removal and other such activities on the River Road.

Lemhi County ultimately came to the rescue, spending an estimated $38,000 to ensure access for downriver residents in an action that County Commissioner Brett Barsalou called “the right thing to do.”

On Tuesday, Barsalou hailed the new agreement as a step in the right direction.

“Any time you can come to an understanding that includes common-sense measures and you formalize that, it’s a positive development,” he said.

The agreement spells out how the two government entities, both challenged by limited funding and staffing, might work together to ensure access to residents, provided conditions warrant. The forest reiterated its responsibility for primary operations and maintenance of the road from April 1 to Oct. 31 each year, with no plans for routine maintenance between Nov. 1 and March 31, during which period the county is responsible for snow removal as needed.

The forest and county would consult about equipment, manpower and other response measures as slides, avalanches and other such events warrant.

“At any time, the Forest Service or Lemhi County may discontinue winter avalanche or snow removal activities if conditions are deemed unsafe,” Salmon-Challis officials said in a statement.

Lemhi County Commissioner Ken Miner said overall the plan seeks to respond to the challenging weather-related issues that took place in the area earlier this year — and which could potentially occur in the future.

“The burden is on both of us to keep that road cleared and help those residents,” he said of the county and the forest.

Carla Bevan, a downriver resident, generally approved of the agreement but added that she had unsuccessfully sought a commitment from the forest not to impose any more long-term closures.

“It’s not everything we’d hoped for but it’s a good starting point,” she said. “The only thing we can do is go forward and see if it works, if it meets the needs of people down here.”

In a statement, North Fork District Ranger Ken Gebhardt emphasized that closure is still a possibility, however remote.

“Public health and safety as well as the safety of our forest and county employees is the number one priority. If conditions are unstable and unsafe, an administrative closure will be put in place rather than put our employees and public at risk,” he said.