Henry's Fork

Former Henry’s Fork Foundation president Mick Mickelson fly fishes the Railroad Ranch in 1984, the year the foundation was founded.

In 1984 a few concerned anglers, worried about the decline of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River caused by unrestricted cattle grazing along its banks, gathered at a cabin in Pinehaven and formed the Henry’s Fork Foundation.

“Henry’s Fork Foundation was born that evening, and already we were in a fight to change nearly a century of cattle grazing history in the Railroad Ranch, now Harriman State Park,” said Mick Mickelson, president of the foundation from 1984 to 1992, writing about the early days in a post on the group’s website.

Mickelson admits that in its early days, the foundation was more militant in its approach to fix problems.

The group’s members went on to help change grazing practices in that area and see the river recover, but soon found themselves fighting several hydroelectric proposals for the river, including a plan to divert water from Mesa Falls. With the help of Idaho Sen. James McClure, most of the hydroelectric projects were blocked.

Now 35 years later, the foundation has matured and grown to nearly 3,000 members and into a respected organization with broad-ranging influence that relies on science, consensus and constructive programs to protect the river’s health. More than just a group pushing for lots of wild trout to catch, the organization advocates a total conservation package for the watershed.

Jamie Laatsch, the foundation’s communication director, said in the early ’90s the foundation got a personality change. The group went from an adversarial approach to a program-based collaborative approach.

“Right around 1992 and 1993, Henry’s Fork Foundation’s executive director at the time, Jan Brown, and the executive director over at Fremont-Madison Irrigation District, Dale Swenson, helped move forward this effort with the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council,” Laatsch said.

She said the council's goal was to bring all the stakeholders together in a nonconfrontational way “to sit down in the room together and really have meaningful discussion about what everyone wanted for the river.”

Laatsch said the group’s members even participated in team-building activities, throwing a ball of yarn around and getting to know each other to find some common ground.

The partnership continues to pay dividends promoting respect and cooperation.

“The relationships and the trust built through that group make a lot of our work possible and has actually been an example for other groups across the West,” Laatsch said. “We’ve gotten phone calls recently from folks who are up against some issues in their area with a lot of confrontation and they ask us ‘how did you do it? What was your model and how did it work, and can we apply it where we are?’”

Mike Lawson, one of the founding members of the Henry’s Fork Foundation and a general manager of Henry’s Fork Anglers, a store and guide service in Island Park, says the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council is one of the foundation’s greatest accomplishments.

“This watershed council has been able to establish a situation where all the user groups and the management agencies were all able to sit in the same room and discuss all kinds of different levels of concern with regard to the river,” Lawson said. “To see the level of communication and trust that exists today compared to the old days is honestly just astounding.”

The watershed council still meets a couple of times a year.

The foundation also funds more than 100 research projects on improving trout habitat, education and outreach programs and a new effort on the South Fork of the Snake River.

“In 2018, a group of local outfitters, anglers and stakeholders who love the South Fork approached us and asked if we would help and bring our method and approach of research and restoration and collaboration to the South Fork,” Laatsch said. “Because the South Fork fishery and water management on the South Fork is so closely tied to the Henry’s Fork, all these systems are really connected. For us to work down there and better understand and connect with that watershed can only help us improve water management across eastern Idaho and benefit both fisheries.”

Another 2018 program is called Farms & Fish. The foundation and another group, Friends of the Teton River, jointly hired Bryce Contor to act as an landowner outreach manager to work with farmers and landowners in the watershed to reduce irrigation demand and keep water in Island Park Reservoir to benefit fisheries and water quality.

“The goal isn’t to reduce the amount of irrigation by any means, but to find creative ways — whether it be through alternative crops that require less water or if the farmer cannot irrigate one of his parcels,” Laatsch said. “We find creative ways to ensure that there’s enough water for everyone.”

A little extra water in the system makes all the difference to the next generation of wild trout. Foundation studies found that having enough flow in the river between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28 helps the survival of juvenile trout.

The years between 2012 and 2016 was the “worst four-year drought since the Dust Bowl,” Laatsch said. That put a strain on keeping enough water in the river for juvenile trout.

“That sort of really woke us up to the idea that we need to be prepared for these types of challenges and really find innovative solutions to these water issues and make sure that there’s enough water both for irrigation and for fisheries,” she said.

Lawson, who has made it his business to know the river intimately, says the river has changed over the years, mostly for the better in some sections.

“Now the river has had to operate as a natural trout fishery,” he said. “Without it being stocked, the numbers of fish are probably not as high as it used to be, but the quality of the fish is probably as good as I’ve ever seen it. There’s some very large fish, especially in that Harriman State Park section.”

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