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Hiking Through the Scorched Secesh with Idaho Conservation League

Summer hiking series connects community with landscape


Mike Medberry unfolded a map from the '70s and spread it on the table at Moxie Java in McCall on June 16. The early morning sun flooded into the coffeeshop and over the map as Medberry traced two fingers along the trail he'd be hiking that day. The worn map would be taken out several more times on the nine-mile hike through the Secesh National Forest to Loon Lake, an hour outside McCall.

Medberry volunteered to lead this hike for the Idaho Conservation League's sixth summer hiking program, which includes hikes at various locations around the state. He has shown off the Secesh area in the hiking program for years.

With baseball caps, CamelBaks and hiking boots, Medberry and hikers Peggy Jordan and Laura Pramuk climbed into a Subaru Forester and drove the mostly dirt road to the Secesh trailhead.

ICL strives to offer hikes for all abilities and interests during the summer. The hikes show off the beauty of Idaho, as well as lessons on environmental issues affecting the land. ICL's outreach intern Bowman Leigh said the hiking program has two goals.

"The first is connection and the second is community. From a connection standpoint, we want to help connect people to places in the outdoors so they can develop a care for the landscape and a personal connection to it," Leigh said. "And then from a communal standpoint, we also want to have fun and be a hub for the community for people who care about getting outside."

Medberry has always felt a special connection to the Secesh area. He calls it 200,000 acres that "hardly anybody knows about, but it's a really spectacular place."

"It expands your soul," Medberry said.

Hiking along a narrow but well kept trail, first along a lush creek and then through a large grassy meadow surrounded by snow-covered peaks, the other hikers seemed to feel that as well, sighing and repeating how perfect the day was.

But the landscape quickly changed from the pristine wilderness everyone imagines in the heart of Idaho to one black and charred. Tall, dead trees towered over the trail without branches and black bark sliding into a heap on the ground. Through the black trees, all the hikers could see were more black trees and a shimmer of Loon Lake beyond.

This isn't the first time Medberry has seen his favorite forests burned. He remembered a fire near French Creek on the Salmon River, and the first time he saw it after the burn.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, it's lost, it's destroyed, it's an awful place now,'" Medberry said. But he said he then realized it's just different.

"The importance of these hikes is just getting out there to see this place, to recognize that it's beautiful," Medberry said. "It's part of a continuum of forest to burned area then to forest. I think a lot of people don't want to see something that's been burned because it just doesn't seem very pretty. But when you look at these trees, you can see the black and the bark that's peeled off of them and it is pretty. It's just not alive in the way they were."

"And there's all this new growth everywhere," Jordan added, sitting on a large rock and looking over the lake and bright green undergrowth.

The Secesh area burned in 1994, a particularly dry, hot year. Jonathan Oppenheimer, ICL senior conservation associate, has worked on fire policy for more than 15 years. He said there's no set policy on logging in a burned forest. Timber companies don't need a permit to salvage the land.

But Oppenheimer stressed the importance of leaving the dead trees in the landscape.

"There is a whole host of species that depend upon the habitat that is created by burned forest," Oppenheimer said.

Falling trees and needles help protect the burned land from erosion, as well as add nutrients to the land.

"If you remove all the trees after a fire has burned, often times, you are basically leaving the forest in a deficit position when you are removing all of those nutrients."

Oppenheimer said the dead trees that fall into streams also help create fish habitat and pools.

Medberry has fought hard in recommending the Secesh area as wilderness to the Forest Service.

"Once you get to know a place, you're going to want to support it and you're going to want to get it protected or at least see it preserved in a way," Medberry said.

Designating the Secesh as a wilderness area would protect it from logging, mining and motorized vehicles. Medberry said it also allows wildlife to migrate freely.

Jordan has been on several of ICL's hikes in past summers, but this was her first time hiking to Loon Lake.

"I've seen other places that were burned right after they were burned, and it is like a moonscape," Jordan said. "You couldn't even tell where you were. Nothing was alive. But you come back even a few years later and suddenly there's vegetation and there's flowers and there's birds and it just grows back."

Jordan said attending ICL's hikes helps keep her environmentally conscious in her urban life.

"It validates and reinforces the kind of life I am trying to lead. That, yes, I am doing the right things, and it's a good thing to do," she said.

The hikers completed the trail loop by late in the afternoon, peeling off their socks and sliding into sandals, repeating over and over, "What a great hike."