Henry's Fork Watershed Council

Posted: Jul 1, 2005

Henry's Fork of the Snake River in southeastern Idaho and the southwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park.

Objective: To improve the management of the Henry's Fork Watershed by fostering a collaborative, consensus-based process for planning and implementation of watershed-wide management and restoration projects, to facilitate long-term monitoring programs, and to inform the Idaho legislature and general public.

Participants: Federal, state and local agencies, state and local elected officials, local conservation and development organizations. For a complete list of partnering organizations, click here.

 Wheat field near Ashton, Idaho
Photo courtesy of Idaho Travel Council
History: The Henry's Fork Watershed encompasses 1.7 million acres in eastern Idaho and southwestern Yellowstone National Park. It includes important habitat for wildlife and native fish, notably cutthroat trout and grizzly bears, provides wintering ground for deer and elk as well as crucial winter refuge for trumpeter swans.

The local economy is based on farming and ranching and, increasingly, on tourism and recreation - the Henry's Fork is a world-renowned fly-fishing stream. The often competing interests of these two user groups led to increasing tension and conflict. On one side, irrigation and hydropower development were viewed as threatening in-stream flow and water quality standards necessary to maintain viable fish populations, and past farming and ranching practices were blamed for degradation of riparian areas. On the other side, there was real concern that excessive environmental regulation threatened the local economy.

In 1984, local residents created Henry's Fork Foundation to advocate better protection of the watershed's health. The Foundation's efforts led to increased regulation of new irrigation and hydropower development, which increased concern among farming, ranching, and hydropower interests.

In 1992 a draw down from the Island Park reservoir released 50,000 tons of sediment into the river, ruining the economically important trout fishing season and heightening concerns about water management. Community frustration arising from this event led to a search for alternative management approaches that culminated in the organization of the Henry's Fork Watershed Council in 1993. The Council provides a forum and a process for consensus building among various stakeholders, including local, state and federal agencies, farmers and ranchers, environmentalists, and recreationists. The council is jointly chaired by the Henry's Fork Foundation and the Freemont Madison Irrigation District, which represents 1,700 area farmers.

Accomplishments: The Henry's Fork Watershed Council has been largely successful in meeting its mandate of to provide a community-based forum for watershed management and conflict resolution. The Council holds nine open meetings each year. An annual "State of the Watershed" Conference is held each fall to evaluate the progress of Council-endorsed projects and to present research and monitoring results.

In order to achieve consensus and participate effectively in research, planning, and public education, the Council developed a formal process -- Watershed Integrity Review and Evaluation (WIRE) -- to assess proposed projects based on scientific management, collaborative, process, ecosystem sustainability, and economic diversity.

The Council has facilitated several scientific studies of the watershed and collaborates with federal, academic and conservation organizations to maintain and restore native trout populations and protect critical wetland habitat for trumpeter swans.

Most importantly, the Council has been able to facilitate effective water management, addressing the needs of both local farmers and ranchers while protecting native fisheries -- even during recent drought -- and has successfully negotiated agreement among irrigators and environmentalists on closure of several dams for needed repairs. In 2003, recognizing the value of the Council's involvement, the Idaho legislature transferred the titles of two dams to the Freemont Madison Irrigation District.

These outcomes indicate that the Council has increased the commitment of the watershed community to achieving collective goals through collaborative decision-making, and has also successfully integrated state and national interests into the process.

Challenges/constraints: Some Council members have suggested that one liability of the Council's achievements may be a tendency towards conflict avoidance, and that participants may not risk that success by airing really difficult issues.

There is also concern that greater agricultural representation is needed and that Wyoming interests, particularly state agencies, are not adequately represented despite the fact that the Wyoming portion of the watershed lies in Yellowstone National Park.

For more information see:

Henry's Fork Foundation

Henry's Fork Watershed Council

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