Wednesday, August 07, 2013

“The One Less Traveled By”

As iconic as they are, the range of Teton Mountains is only 40 miles long, where they form the border between Wyoming and the nook of Idaho where I was born and spent my early years.

There are two routes through the Tetons.  One around the south end over Teton Pass is the most traveled but my heart prefers the 40 mile graded gravel road around the north end along the border between Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.  A Jeep and the company of a Bulldog are recommended.

The route, named because it runs from Ashton Idaho to Flagg Ranch in Wyoming, also has ancestral significance.  In 1915, long after he and his brothers and sisters and my great grand parents began ranching and homesteading in that Idaho nook, my paternal grandfather Mel Bowman and his brother George took a part-time winter job over that road.

With a four-horse team and wagon, they hauled cement from the mile-high rail head in Ashton around the north end of the Tetons where it was needed for construction of Jackson Lake Dam near Moran, Wyoming.  The road which climbs to 7,500 feet had been first created as a stage coach route along a path worn by bands of the Shoshone People and other Native American tribes.

My grandfather and his brother made many trips over the road that winter, each four days over and two days back.  They had to use logs to slow their decent.  Overnighting in tepees along the way in camps like Cascade, they did all of this for $80 per trip plus food and feed for the horses in freezing weather.

Today, the route takes a little more than three hours over a graded gravel road that gives life to the song “Idaho” by fellow-native Josh Ritter when he sings – “And the winds to gravel roads Idaho oh Idaho.”  To the south are views of the Tetons and their namesake national park.

To the north is Yellowstone’s Cascade Corner where spectacular waterfalls spill over the edge of the Pitchstone Plateau into Bechler Meadows to which Elk migrated across our ranch each year.  Fall River collects the others and emerges into Idaho where it flows into the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River about six miles downstream from what was our ranch.

Mostly though, the view along the Ashton-Flagg Ranch Rd is of incredible forests, meadows and streams.

It is a three hour journey over dirt road to the junction with the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Parkway above the north end of Jackson Lake.  The famed Jackson Hole isn’t a town.  It is a valley.

Flagg Ranch, Moran and Jackson Lake are at the north end, the town of Jackson at the south end, at the end of a stunning hour drive.  Jackson Lake is a natural, glacial lake.  The dam was created to raise the water level.

The Jackson Lake Dam was all part of a series of dams constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation called the Minidoka Project.  They opened the vast Snake River Plain that arcs across Idaho’s southern edge from Idaho Falls to Boise and first made it practical to farm and famous for potatoes.

My grandfather’s gig as a teamster wasn’t my family’s only experience with dams.  Water is more important than land or other resources in the West.  He also served as a director of the Arcadia Reservoir & Canal Company for many years which included an earthen dam on Upper Sand Creek, owned in shares by the ranches and farms on 2,000 acres below.

He was justifiably proud of a repair to the dam he engineered that saved a lot of money.  My parents met and married during World War II when my maternal grandfather, Mark White, served as a “water master” on the Ashton Hydroelectric Dam, a mile from our ranch, which just underwent a major overhaul after 100 years of service.

He later supervised Stewart Dam in the southeastern tip of Idaho where the meadows and wetlands of the 6,000 foot high Bear River Valley are regulated for irrigation by a series of canals, dams and pumps.

It slices along the Old Oregon Trail where the valley cuts between the Wasatch and Caribou mountain ranges just before Bear Lake bridges across the Utah border and emerges onto the five-hundred-mile, 133,000 sq. mile Colorado Plateau.

Between the two dams runs the fault line of my youth.

It was John Wesley Powell who established that homesteading in the arid Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West would require a much different approach than it had in the East and Midwest.  He argued that irrigation dams were as important as canals, levees and railroads had been to economic development.

Dr. Wallace Stegner, in his outstanding biography of Powell entitled Beyond The Hundredth Meridian, credits this one-armed Civil War veteran with inspiration for creation of most of the science-driven agencies of the federal government.

He famously overcame intense opposition from western and southern Congressmen to have the United States fund creation of its first detailed topographical map.  In my opinion, this may well be the single most incredible spur of economic development in our nation’s history.

He also battled with western members of Congress to protect small, yeoman farmers and ranchers from predatory private irrigation companies who would over promise, and then when the lands were abandoned, would scoop them up for a song or enable large land companies to do so.

He would agree with those seeking genuine regulatory reform but he would have no patience for those who today masquerade instead under that label to enable parasitic special interests, who instead of creating value, seek it through legislative favor while shifting costs to the general public.

Come to think of it, he would agree with Republican friends of mine who argue convincingly that the only regulatory reform we need is for executive branch officials at every level to fairly, passionately and even-handedly execute the regulations we already have.

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