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Idaho Town Faces Challenges as Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Nears - 2003-09-21

Over the next few years, thousands are expected to follow the trail Meriwether Lewis and William Clark took to explore the Louisiana Purchase 200 years ago, from where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi at St. Louis, to the Pacific Ocean. One of the trail's main attractions is the Lemhi Pass near Salmon, Idaho. While the Lemhi Valley is home to one of the most pristine areas of the trail, it's also recently been declared the birthplace of Sacajawea, a Shoshone woman who served as guide for Lewis and Clark. The city of Salmon is hoping to cash in on the predicted influx of people. But the tourists could prove to be a problem.

Salmon is expecting 40,000 visitors annually during the two-year long Lewis and Clark Bicentennial celebration. To encourage visitors to take the extra hour to drive north from the trail, the city opened a special exhibit last month, during this year's Sacajawea Heritage Days.

Native American flutists played for some 200 people during the opening ceremonies for the Sacajawea Interpretative Center. The center will show visitors what life was like in the Shoshone Lemhi community in the early 19th century. Emma George, a descendant of Sacajawea, says the center and the celebration honor her tribe, but she worries the tourists will unknowingly violate her people's holy places.

"To me, up in that area, is sacred land," she said. "And we haven't really said 'This place is sacred, that place is sacred.' There are places that are sacred here but we haven't identified all of them. We want to maintain confidentiality and not publicize where they are, and that's another issue. But as far as Lemhi Pass, I think that they need to reconsider opening it up as a public throughway because that's where the Lemhi people traversed to the buffalo country."

But Salmon Mayor Stan Davis is eagerly waiting to welcome the flood of visitors - and the money they'll spend here. He points out that the town's economy was nearly devastated when the mining and timber industries left here in the 1990s.

"We have developed a plan to diversify this economy here, and one of the things is this Sacajawea Center, to bring people in, show them the quality of life we have, without destroying the quality of life we have, and reap a little benefit in the stores downtown," he said. "That's a side product of this center."

Pickup trucks pulling campers rumble along Salmon's Main Street, stopping for lunch and souvenirs.

Nick Bertram, waiting on customers at his restaurant and brewpub, says the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial is good for his business. "I've had a number of people coming through here that are following the Lewis and Clark Trail, and I've had a number of tour guides coming through with other tour guides, and they've had dinner and talked about bringing trips through here," he explains. "We are a tourist town. We have June, July and August when we boom [economically], and then we bust for the other 9 months of the year. October, November and December aren't bad, but January, February, March are awful. So we have to do it in summer, and then get by in winter."

But the thousand of visitors bringing business to the community could also overload Salmon's infrastructure and damage the Lemhi Pass environment. In this gamble, the area's emergency services, ecosystem, and cultural treasures are on the line.

In preparation, Lemhi County Sheriff Brett Barsalou helped create an emergency disaster plan with neighboring counties in Idaho and Montana. He knows Salmon's resources could be devastated by a major emergency, like a serious accident in the Lemhi Pass.

"We don't have the personnel to be spread out, so whatever's happening, that's where we're at, and we would have a total commitment to a situation like that," said Sheriff Barsalou . "Of course, we're isolated also when it comes to a major trauma care center, so we'd have to fly someone to Idaho Falls or Missoula. I notice that a lot of the visitors are a little older, some of them are not used to driving on the mountain roads they have to pass to get to these points on the Trail. And so when they decide, 'We're going to take our motorhome up on Lemhi Pass,' they should know that if they get in trouble, it might be a while before someone gets there to help them."

Motorhomes and campers clogging the trail could also spell disaster for the fragile environment of the Lemhi Pass, home to several endangered species of fish, such as Sockeye salmon. Linda Clark with the Bureau of Land Management points out that the agency has found ways to direct people away from sensitive areas

"We will probably have a lot more people out on the land during the bicentennial, more employees out there for visitor contact for the next few years to answer questions and try to educate the public about the fragile resources that we're trying to manage," she said. "This area is very pristine, and it is important for the generations to come, I think, to be about to go out there and have a feeling of maybe what Lewis and Clark and the party felt when they came through this area."

The area is also home to many important archeological sites. Archeologist Steve Matz explains that the Forest Service has developed a strategy to divert tourists away from these ancient sites.

"We have a number of Native American archeological sites, including, on government land, actual teepee rings," he said. "So we're certainly concerned about sending the public to those particular areas because even well-meaning people will trample those kind of features. Instead of posting them closed, we just try to direct the public away from them, and we continue to monitor them, to see if we're having any sort of problems."

Mr. Matz says the new Sacajawea Interpretative Center will teach visitors about the Native American culture while reducing traffic on the Lewis and Clark Trail.

Salmon officials expect the largest group of tourists through the Lemhi Pass in 2005, on the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition's journey through the area. There are already five times as many visitors as there were just a year ago.

At a site where Native American culture first encountered white explorers in 1805, small town culture is bracing for a wave of 21st century explorers and the new challenges they'll bring.