You can’t grow up in the tiny Yellowstone-Teton nook of eastern Idaho that noses up between Montana and Wyoming as I did during my formative years on an ancestral cattle ranch, without being constantly aware that it will happen again.
There are 40 distinct geologic formations there, but dominant is a huge volcanic eruption that took place there 2 million years ago.
That was the largest in a chain-reaction of eruptions that began 17 million years ago in the southwest nook of Idaho near its borders with Oregon and Nevada.
Sweeping to the northeast, the eruptions worked their way up what became the 400 mile Snake River Plain, which widens from 30 miles to 125 miles as it reaches my native nook where in the shadow of the Rockies that stupendous eruption created an alpine bench above the plain.
A much smaller eruption in that chain created the Yellowstone Plateau just 600,000 years ago and a crater, or caldera, as large as Los Angeles.
Five miles below its surface is a volcano of molten rock the size of Mount Everest, one of 10 Super Volcanoes in the World.
It will blow again someday and the consequences will be felt globally.
It surfaces at the Rocky Mountain Continental Divide just 10 miles from the headwaters of the Missouri River on the other side: the waters of the former destined for the Pacific and the waters of the latter to the Atlantic.
It is impossible to describe how beautiful this area is, especially the first 70 miles of the river’s 127 mile length, so I’ll just link to this video. This is the part my parents crisscrossed when they first brought me home from the hospital.
We crossed it to provision in Ashton, to and from school and church, to watch my dad play softball in the evening down near Chester and for Sunday family dinners along with my with my aunts, uncles and cousins down at my grandparent’s house in Saint Anthony.
The Henry’s Fork is where I learned to wade and explore, catch frogs and fly fish, as well as experience the transformative, spiritual influence of nature.
I rarely return, maybe every 20 years or so, but the Henry’s Fork never leaves you.
It is really more like five different rivers in that first half of the river from where a huge spring turns to a river within a hundred feet, through forests, winding across the pastures and native grasses of a caldera, down through steep canyons creating three huge water falls.
Along that stretch it collects creeks such as Buffalo, Elk and Robinson and rivers such as Warm River and Fall River which cascading out of the southwest corner of Yellowstone known as Bechler Meadows.
Herds of Elk “summer” in the meadows there and further up the Henry’s Fork, migrate just above and below the ranch my great-grandparents settled to “winter” at wildlife refuges at Camas and along Sand Creek.
Just beyond Saint Anthony, the Henry’s Fork breaks into channels becoming more like a large, inland delta as it collects the Teton River west of Rexburg and before joining the South Fork as it flows down out of Palisades to form the Snake River north of Idaho Falls.
The portion of the river so important to my formative years is between its headwaters and the Vernon bridge north of Chester.
Most of that time was spent exploring a half mile of riffles and runs located in the tail waters between the Ora bridge and the Ashton Dam.
We crossed the Ora bridge almost daily for one reason or another. It is near there that my parents first met when my dad stopped to pull my mom’s family out of the gravel roadside’s roadside borrow pit.
When it was erected in 1911, the reservoir created by the Ashton Dam and the Ora bridge installed below it shortened the route to town for my rancher paternal great-grandparents and grandparents.
In the 1940s, its owner the Utah Power & Light Company brought my maternal grandfather and his family there for a few years to operate the dam.
The Henry’s Fork earned a reputation in the west for fly-fishing among enthusiasts in the 1930s but in 1975 I just may have had a hand in gaining it worldwide renown.
Before, during and after the Expo ‘74, a World’s Fair for the Environment in Spokane, I worked to help start a community destination marketing organization to leverage and build on the success of the event.
Part of our job was to interest outdoor writers in story ideas and pre and post trips related to the event as well as laying the groundwork for hosting the Outdoor Writers of America national convention.
Spokane, Washington hosted the six month affair, in part because of its proximity within a day’s drive from so many the Pacific Northwest’s great rivers, lakes, national forests and parks, including the Henry’s Fork.
Who knows? The effort may have even planted or germinated the seed for an article written in Sports Afield magazine in 1975.
The article appeared during my first year as the DMO’s chief exec entitled, The Best Dry Fly River in America—The Henry's Fork, written by Ernie Schwiebert.
Schwiebert, who passed away in 2005, was already a legend and respected author and illustrator.
As an architect, he took advantage of his business travels to scout fly fishing streams. He had also influenced the founding and growth of a conservation group called Trout Unlimited.
Now 150,000 members strong with 400 chapters including one named for Ernie, this past year alone Trout Unlimited protected 1,400 stream miles and 7.8 million acres of land while reconnecting over 570 miles of spawning and rearing habitat and restoring over 140 miles of river.
But within a few years of Ernie’s 1975 accolade, worry spread among residents along the Henry’s Fork about its sustainability and by 1983 they coalesced in the formation of the Henry’s Fork Foundation.
Watershed organizations such as this were extremely rare back then and unheard of in eastern Idaho.
A relatively short river, the Henry’s Fork watershed still generates an incredible 2.8 million acre-feet of water supply each year including shallow groundwater.
For us lay folks, an acre-foot of water is 325,900 gallons. About 59% of that flows downstream into the Snake along with 29% in the form of groundwater outflow.
The remainder is consumed for irrigation, expanded for domestic, commercial and industrial use or lost through evaporation.
One of the major economic drivers of this nook of Idaho is tourism and recreation including fishing, which relies on consistent seasonal flows along the river.
So the rub, even where there isn’t a drought, is to calibrate use of the river over the course of the year so that it is healthy, bio-diverse and economically viable for all uses.
At issue is irrigation, not because of overall consumption for that purpose, which has been stable since the 1970s, but because of the way it has changed technologically.
Rather than relying on snowmelt, it now relies primarily on groundwater recharge and discharge. Officials everywhere often make the mistake of thinking of surface water and groundwater as different but it is all related.
Actually, rivers are crucial to groundwater and groundwater outflow is crucial to rivers. They are inter-related.
Along the Henry’s Fork, about 24% of the groundwater is recharged by rain and snow. Another 9% comes from stream seepage and 38% from seepage from canals.
Another 29% seeps back into groundwater when the irrigation is applied. But irrigation technology has challenged areas along the river, resulting in too much in low areas and not enough in others.
Idaho, as well as North Carolina where I live, are very conservative states. But unlike a regressive wing of conservatives in North Carolina, lawmakers in Idaho, part of the more arid west, seem to know better than to tamper with water quality provisions.
Idaho also better understands, out of necessity, the importance of collaboration.
This includes close collaboration between federal and state agencies as well as collaboration between non-government organizations such as the HF Foundation, water users, landowners, businesses and other stakeholders working together as the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council.
Over the last few years, state and federal agencies have re-worked a management plan for the Henry’s Fork watershed. They have distilled of more than 50 options in the areas of surface storage, groundwater recharge and water conservation, down to 12.
None of the options involve rolling back water quality standards as we apparently just did in North Carolina to please special interests.
The final product is a tactical plan for achieving strategic objectives in the future. It is well worth reading and emulating.
There is a bright future for the Henry’s Fork River. The river continued over the last four decades to rack up accolades for fly fishing.
But as noted in a recent overview by Trout Unlimited, fishing there is “indeed not what it used to be. It is better.”