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Idaho ‘ghost trail’ on the cusp of making a comeback

March 9, 2019
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In this Feb. 26, 2019, photo, Idaho Fish and Game employee Andrew MacKey traces the potential route of a more than 100-mile trail that will circumnavigate the Craig Mountain Wildlife Management Area, south of Lewiston, Idaho. Idaho Fish and Game officials will begin work in April on a more than 100-mile long trail around the area south of Lewiston. (Eric Barker/Lewiston Tribune via AP)
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In this Feb. 26, 2019, photo, Idaho Fish and Game employee Andrew MacKey traces the potential route of a more than 100-mile trail that will circumnavigate the Craig Mountain Wildlife Management Area, south of Lewiston, Idaho. Idaho Fish and Game officials will begin work in April on a more than 100-mile long trail around the area south of Lewiston. (Eric Barker/Lewiston Tribune via AP)

LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — Andrew Mackey was glassing for mule deer on the steep, tawny slopes of the Snake River breaks on the Craig Mountain Wildlife Management Area south of Lewiston when he spotted the remnants of an old trail.

After the hunt, he consulted some old timers and learned there was once a trail that circumnavigated much of the 124,000-acre area that occupies a triangle of wrinkled, game-rich land between the Snake River in Hells Canyon and the lower Salmon River gorge.

The ghost path winding through bunch grass and stringers of timbers got Mackey thinking, The Lewiston Tribune reports. The Idaho Fish and Game wildlife biologist wondered if it would be possible to revamp the trail and connect it with sections of old road to provide a unique experience for hunters and others who could use it to access the harder-to-reach areas of the wildlife area as well as the agency’s six public-use cabins scattered throughout the property.

That was two years ago. In April, the initial phase of restoring the trail is set to begin when a crew from the Montana Conservation Corps begins initial work on what will be a three-year project that will eventually provide about a 120-mile loop.

Although many details are yet to be worked out, Mackey said the trailhead could be located near Kruze Meadow or some other nearby location. The route would head north and west to the agency’s Madden Creek Access. From there it would turn southwest down Madden Creek to connect with the old mid-elevation tread that Mackey spotted while deer hunting.

The trail could eventually drop down to the Nature Conservancy’s Garden Creek Ranch. From there it would climb again to about midslope between the top of Wapshilla Ridge and the Snake while continuing south to wrap around the tip of the area above the confluence of the Snake and Salmon rivers. It would then follow the Salmon River upstream to Eagle Creek and then Deer Creek before gaining elevation in a northward direction back toward Kruze Meadows.

Mackey estimates the distance to be about 120 miles. Along the way the trail would visit the department’s cabins that are open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Eventually additional access points and spur trails could be added to create smaller loops.

“In theory what we would have is this extremely long, rather cool opportunity for people to recreate on,” he said. “We are doing this in the name of sportsmen’s access and hopefully (will) be able to create some opportunity for people to get out there and chukar hunt and deer hunt.”

He said the trail could also serve a dual purpose of providing access to firefighters. Wildfire has been a frequent visitor to the wildlife area over the past 20 years. While fire is often beneficial to wildlife habitat, frequent fires can be a detriment.

Mackey said officials at the Idaho Department of Lands are enthusiastic about the potential for the trail to create access for firefighters. The agency, which is contributing money to the trail’s construction, is in charge of firefighting there and also has several large tracts of timber land on the mountain.

“They said if they know about these trail systems, it can increase access for firefighters. Additionally, if we have trails that go down ridges, it can act as fire line.”

Craig Mountain is home to many species and is a popular destination for mule deer, elk and bighorn sheep hunting. It’s also a popular place to hunt chukar and gray partridge, black bears, turkey and whitetail deer.

The department manages access to the area carefully and restricts the areas were motorized access is allowed. The trail would be open to those willing to hike it or ride stock and be closed to motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles.

Mackey said the trail, that would likely only be accessible April through November because of winter snow, would also be carefully managed to ensure recreation and hunting doesn’t put too much pressure on deer, elk and other species. But he added that the wildlife habitat the agency works to protect there by limiting access is vulnerable to alteration by fire.

“We do have some issues where we are trying to balance protection for wildlife,” he said. “But protection of wildlife is not only protection from (human) disturbance but also habitat loss. If we continue to have fire a disturbance (cycle) of seven years or less, it’s not going to be beneficial to wildlife habitat.”

The initial work is being funded by a $25,000 grant from the Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Another $30,000 is expected from the department of lands which will come out of a fund from the proceeds of timber sales on the mountain. He said the department will also contribute in-kind funding through employee time and equipment. He estimated the total project will cost about $95,000. Some of the money will be used to improve cabins and fireproof them to the extent possible.

As the project progress, Mackey said there will likely be ample opportunity for volunteers to also help complete the trail system.

Most of the land on Craig Mountain is owned by the state and managed by the department. Other public sections are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The Nez Perce Tribe and Nature Conservancy also own parcels on the mountain. Mackey said he still needs to finish consulting with all the various owners and managers.

The first phase of work will concentrate on trail sections crossing parcels owned by the state. Portions of the trail that would cross Bureau of Land Management land need to go through the National Environmental Planing Process that includes analysis of the environmental effects and public input. The department also needs to have discussions with the Nez Perce Tribe about parts of the trail that could cross tribal land.

When the trail becomes a reality, Mackey said the agency will provide detailed maps to the public.

“If people know these trails exist at least it might increase the use a little bit more in the areas we are not getting it,” he said.

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Information from: Lewiston Tribune, http://www.lmtribune.com

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