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Now Is Last Chance for Cool Road Trip to Owyhee Desert

HOMEDALE • The Owyhee Desert is a fascinating place where you go from humdrum scenery to drop-dead gorgeous in an instant, but with summer heat looming you want to get there soon.

People from the Treasure Valley and beyond use the Owyhees for travel and adventure. Their desert is one of the most remote and unpopulated areas in the continental U.S. and one of the rare remaining places where the adventure label is appropriate.

There are few services, developed areas or even basics such as properly marked and maintained roads when you get into the depths of the Owyhees. Add to that the harsh climate, and you have a rugged, beautiful place that’s not beginner-friendly.

But cross over to the Oregon side and you will find a rarity for the Owyhees: a well-marked, all-weather (mostly) road that takes you to some spectacular scenery for hiking, camping or a scenic day trip.

The easiest route from the Treasure Valley is to take U.S. 95 south to Homedale. Top off the gas tank and get all your supplies, because Homedale is the last place to do it. It’s not a long trip, but it’s always a good idea to start any trip into the desert with a full tank of gas.

From Homedale, go west on Idaho 19 about 6 miles to the marked turnoff to Succor Creek Road and Succor Creek Campground.

The Bureau of Land Management recommends high ground clearance vehicles. It’s common to see passenger cars at Leslie Gulch, but you can expect 30 to 65 miles of gravel roads (depending on how far you go), which will be washboarded and bumpy with the degree of roughness varying depending on weather and traffic conditions. Rain also causes flash floods that can rut the roads.

From Homedale, you will travel across the upper plains with rolling hills and sagebrush and grassland and little, if anything, to tip you off to what lies ahead.

You will see the dividends of the recent rainstorms that have left the desert green, and keep a sharp eye out for pronghorn and mule deer that inhabit the area, as well as coyotes, raptors and other birds.

Continue along the main gravel road (ignore the unmarked side roads), and you gradually pitch downward and start seeing rock formations in the distance.

You’re heading into the Succor Creek drainage, where you will enter canyon country with its sheer bluffs, lush riparian areas (Succor Creek has water year-round) and jutting rock formations.

You will come to the Succor Creek Campground about 15 miles from where you left Idaho 19. This is a popular camping area for people driving or towing a large RV, or who plan to ride ATVs or other off-highway vehicles, or horses. You can even find some shady campsites, which can make a huge difference on a hot, sunny day.

There are no fees or services except an outhouse and a few picnic tables. According to Oregon State Parks, there are eight “primitive” campsites on the west side (road side) of the creek and 15 walk-in campsites across the pedestrian-only bridge on the east side of the creek.

Continue on the road and check out more cool scenery as you wind along the bottom lands with rocks looming above. Then you will start climbing out of the canyon and back across the sagebrush and grassland plains.

Go about 9 miles farther, and you will reach the marked intersection to Leslie Gulch Road, Slocum Creek Campground and the Owyhee Reservoir/River.

The road goes down as you enter Leslie Gulch, which according to the BLM is named after Hiram Leslie, a pioneer who was killed by lightning in 1886.

The area has redrock formations that seem to be lifted from Moab or somewhere else in the Southwest.

There are castle-like formations, spires, arches and other features caused by layers of volcanic ash carved by eons of erosion and natural forces.

This road takes you into the gulch, where there are a series of rock formations and excellent viewpoints. But you’re only seeing a fraction of what the area has to offer, which is why you may see many empty vehicles parked on the side of the road. People are out hiking the trails and seeing more of the area.

The only camping in the Leslie Gulch area is near the Owyhee River at Slocum Creek, which has 12 sites with picnic tables and an outhouse. There are canopies over the picnic tables, which provide much-needed shade.

Campsites are congregated in a small space, so don’t expect a lot of privacy or seclusion. The campground is a short way from trailheads to other areas and a short walk to the Owyhee River.

Gathering firewood is not allowed, so you will need to bring your own if you want a campfire. There are no reservations and no fees.

The area is home to diverse wildlife, including bighorn sheep. According to the BLM, 17 sheep were reintroduced into Leslie Gulch in 1965, and the herd has grown to more than 200. Mule deer and elk are in the area, as well as coyotes and bobcats.

Bird watchers can spot chukars, songbirds, raptors, California quail, northern flickers and white-throated swifts.

Also remember: It’s rattlesnake country, so be vigilant during mornings and evenings when they’re most active. Be especially cautious while hiking around the rocks.

The road into Leslie Creek dead-ends at a turnaround and a boat ramp that is now hundreds of yards from the Owyhee River due to an extended drought.

On your return trip, you will backtrack Leslie Gulch Road (it’s just as scenic going the other way) back to the junction with Succor Creek Road. To avoid backtracking your whole route, go right and to the marked junction to U.S. 95. It’s about 10 miles to the highway, and another 20 miles to Marsing.


Wildavore Workshop Teaches Deer Hunting

BOISE • Adults who want to learn big game hunting skills and participate in a hunt are invited to a four-day workshop.

The “Wildavore” workshop — hosted by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game — will be Saturday, July 18; Saturday, July 25; the evening of Friday, July 31; and Saturday, Aug. 1.

The workshop will focus on deer hunting and is open to adults 18 or older.

“The ideal workshop candidate has little or no big game hunting experience and perhaps has no access to experienced hunting mentors,” Fish and Game wildlife technician Liz Horsmon said.

Held at the Boise River Wildlife Management Area and at Lucky Peak Nursery near Boise, the workshop will include both classroom and outdoor experiences. Participants will learn deer biology and preferred habitat; effective hunting techniques; essential equipment; how to scout for hunting spots; how to ethically harvest game; and how to dress, handle and cook harvested animals.

The workshop will culminate this fall in a deer hunt with an experienced mentor. All equipment will be provided, and workshop participants will learn to safely handle and shoot rifles.

The fee of $25 includes refreshments and venison lunches for all Saturday classes. Participants must attend all sessions in order to participate in a mentored hunt. Hunter Education course completion is a prerequisite.

“We hope to see workshop participants leave with the basic knowledge and experience needed to continue hunting on their own,” Horsmon said. “The potential also exists for workshop participants to introduce the hunting tradition to family and friends.”

For information or a workshop application: Horsmon, 208-236-1267 or Elizabeth.Horsmon@idfg.idaho.gov.


UPDATE: Drought Shouldn’t Impact Hydro Dams Too Much This Summer

COEUR D'ALENE (AP) | Despite one of the worst drought years on record, hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest should not see their operations disrupted too much this summer, a regional power planning group was told Wednesday.

Water through the dams in the Columbia River Basin this summer is projected to be only about 71 percent of average, triggering dry year operation protocols for the dams, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council said.

The council, which includes members from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, was told by federal water managers that reservoirs would likely be lowered more than usual as the summer wears on.

But the council was also told by wildlife managers the drought is not expected to cause major problems for threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead runs this year.

"I will not kid you, it's still going to be dry," said Steve Barton of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Barton also said he did not expect any new navigation hazards to emerge in the rivers because of the drought.

"What you are describing is a pretty resilient system," said Phil Rockefeller of Washington, who is chair of the council.

Giant hydro dams on the Columbia and Snake river systems provide much of the electricity for the Pacific Northwest. The dams also provide flood control, irrigation for crops, navigation of cargo, and the water needed for fish to migrate to the sea and then back home to spawn. This year, a light winter snowpack has raised concerns about how a water shortage would impact those activities.

The council, appointed by the governors of the four states, plans for future power needs while balancing the needs of fish and the environment of the Columbia River Basin.

The governors of Washington, Oregon and Idaho have declared drought emergencies in at least some portions of their states. No drought declarations have been issued in Montana.

The biggest impacts will likely come later this summer, when reservoirs behind some of the giant dams are drawn down much lower than normal, federal water managers told the council.

For instance, Hungry Horse Dam in Montana will be drafted 20 feet from full, twice the usual rate, by Sept. 30, according to the drought protocols prepared by council staff.

Meanwhile, salmon managers are seeking to balance when water is released into the river system to provide the best habitat for migrating fish.

"The salmon managers' desire has been to move as much water as possible into the spring migration, with the understanding that this will likely have implications for summer flows later," council staff said in a report to the council.

Among major lakes, Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho should remain at full depth until September, Barton said.

Ritchie Graves of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this year ranks among the five worst drought years in more than half a century on the Columbia and Snake river systems.

Graves said 2001 was a similar low-flow year, when migrating salmon had to be collected and barged through the dams and there was a relatively low survival rate. It remains to be seen how many migrating fish will survive this year, he said.

"People get a little jittery under these circumstances," Graves said.


Feds Say Southwest, Northwest Could See Major Wildfires

DENVER (AP) | The Southwest and Northwest could face potentially catastrophic wildfires this summer, despite an unusually wet May over much of the nation, the Obama administration has warned.

"We've been very fortunate here in the central part of the country to have above-normal precipitation to allow us to postpone the fire season," U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell said at a news conference Tuesday in Denver.

But as the summer heat dries out forests and rangeland, the fire danger will rise, said Tidwell, who joined Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at the Denver briefing.

Southern Arizona and drought-stricken California are especially vulnerable to large, costly fires, Tidwell said. Washington, Oregon, northern Idaho and western Montana will face increasing fire danger later in the summer, he said.

Conditions in Washington could be similar to last year, when the Carlton Complex fire destroyed 300 homes, making it the worst wildfire in state history, Tidwell said.

Jewell said climate change and drought are to blame for worsening wildfires, which she said destroy homes and businesses, threaten power grids and drinking water and cause damage river valleys that cost millions and take decades to restore.

"There's a lot at stake for everyone," she said.

The Agriculture and Interior departments said federal firefighting costs are expected to range from $1.1 billion to $2.1 billion this year. The high end would exceed their combined firefighting budget of about $1.4 billion.

If the costs exceed their firefighting budgets, the departments would have to transfer money from programs meant to reduce long-term fire danger by improving the health of forests and rangelands.

Vilsack, Jewell and Tidwell again asked Congress to allow the administration to take the cost of fighting the worst wildfires out of federal disaster funds, rather than their firefighting budgets, to protect long-term fire prevention programs.

The Obama administration says the worst 1 percent of all wildfires account for about 30 percent of federal firefighting costs.

"These are emergencies," Jewell said. "They should be treated as such."

She said the proposal has bipartisan support but the administration hasn't been able to persuade Congress to act.

Vilsack added, "It's not asking about new money. It's about spending the existing resources a different way."

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday proposed a budget of $3.6 billion for both wildland firefighting and prevention for the fiscal year that starts in October, $52 million more than the current budget, committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said.

The measure doesn't change the way major fires are paid for, which brought criticism from Tidwell.

"We're disappointed that we didn't have the committee understanding precisely what's at play here," he said.

Hing said changing the way wildfires are paid for would require Congress to revise laws that govern the budget process and disaster recovery spending.

Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said funding isn't the answer to the worsening wildfire problem.

"Throwing more money at it, without changing management practices, does not cut it," said Bishop, a Utah Republican. "The Forest Service must start thinking creatively. There must be a change in the mindset and a change in their management."


EPA Fines Clearwater Paper over Alleged Pollution Violations

LEWISTON (AP) | Clearwater Paper Company has agreed to pay a civil penalty and upgrade pollution control equipment at its Lewiston pulp and paper mill to address alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.

The Lewiston Tribune reports that Clearwater Paper will pay $300,000 in fines plus interest to the federal government and spend $800,000 to address problems that led to the violation.

According to the agreement, which was filed in federal court Tuesday, the alleged violations involved the release of total reduced sulfur and methanol and were documented after an Environmental Protection Agency inspection of the mill in 2009.

Scott Downey, manager of air compliance for EPA's Region 10 office based in Seattle, said inspectors noticed emissions coming from doors on a pulp washer at the mill and detected other emissions from a sawdust digester.

"It was a violation but it was not an imminent threat to public health," said EPA spokesman Mark MacIntyre. "If we saw a big enough problem there with their operation, such that we thought it might have immediate health effects, we have other emergency powers we can us. In this case that is not what we saw."

Following the inspection and notice of violation, the company spent $43,000 to replace doors on the pulp washer to mitigate the first source, and will spend $800,000 to fix emissions from the sawdust digester.

Clearwater Paper spokesman Matt Van Vleet says the company disagrees with the agency's reasoning for the fine.

"There was never risk to human health or the broader environment and the site had been visited after our controls had been put in place, prior to 2009, by environmental personnel without any indication there were any problems," Van Vleet said. "However, we are paying the fine and making some equipment changes to avoid lengthy and costly litigation."


UPDATE: Child Suffers Minor Burns in House Fire, Firefighters Say

TWIN FALLS • A child suffered minor burns on his fingers in a house fire in Twin Falls on Tuesday.

The Twin Falls Fire Department arrived at 2256 Bowlin Lane at 12:52 p.m. and had the fire out at 12:58 p.m., said Battalion Chief Ron Aguirre.

Three children were inside the house when the fire started. The fire was contained to one room. The cause of the fire is being investigated, Aguirre said.

One child was wearing an oxygen mask when reporters arrived, but paramedics removed it after several minutes.

Eleven firefighters responded and were packing up equipment by 1:20 p.m.


UPDATE: No Injuries in Jerome County Trailer Fire

JEROME • Two people escaped a trailer that was on fire in Jerome County on Tuesday evening.

The Jerome Rural Fire Department responded about 6:20 p.m. to a camp trailer on fire near 400 Golf Course Road.

Battalion Chief Larry Robbins said the fire started in the area of a refrigerator in the trailer, but the cause was still being investigated.

About 10 firefighters responded and put the fire out in five minutes.

The two occupants of the trailer escaped without injury.


Montana Steakhouse to Close After 15 Years

TWIN FALLS • Margie Gress was on her feet as soon as the Montana Steakhouse doors swung open.

She had already seated the two women who walked in before her daughter, Jacque Corbett, could intercept them.

“Mom, I’ll get them,” Corbett said.

In some ways, Tuesday afternoon was like any other day for Gress. She came to work at 2 p.m. and likely wouldn’t leave until 10 p.m.

But after 15 years of owning and operating Montana Steakhouse in Twin Falls, she will soon walk out of the doors for good. Gress, 73, is retiring Saturday after 48 years in the restaurant business.

“It’s bittersweet.” Gress said. “I put my soul in this place.”

Gress opened the Montana Steakhouse with her late husband, William “Bill” Gress. The Gresses first opened Montana Steakhouse in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. and operated there for eight years before moving to Twin Falls. Bill took to the area after they passed through from Arizona to Montana. Over the years, the restaurant became known as a place to get a steak and sing karaoke.

The Gress’ first business was named Ol’ River Bridge Inn, a nightclub and restaurant, in Columbia Falls, Mont. They owned it for 30 years.

“The reason we got into the restaurant business is because my husband was a musician,” Gress said. “Then he put a chicken cooker in the back of the bar. My husband was an awesome steak cook. If it was up to him, he would have served steak, potatoes and salad, and that’s it.”

Bill died March 7, 2013. After his death, the family started to make plans to sell.

“She needs to rest and visit friends in Lake Havasu and enjoy the rest of her life,” Corbett said of her mother.

Soon crowds of late-night karaoke goers may give way to families gathered around plates of pizza.

Jody and Heidi Hawkins of Twin Falls have purchased the Montana Steakhouse building and plan to open a Pizza Pie Cafe. It is a pizza buffet restaurant with locations in Pocatello, Boise and Rexburg and Ammon. The Hawkinses haven’t officially purchased the franchise yet and have no opening date set. Jody estimated they have about three months of remodeling to do to the inside of the building. They both teach biology at the College of Southern Idaho.

“We are just enamored with it (Pizza Pie Cafe),” Jody said. “It’s a good opportunity to provide more options on the north side of town.”

Since the Hawkinses are not using anything inside Montana Steakhouse, a public sale is going to take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Everything in the restaurant including paintings and kitchen equipment will be sold. Much of the artwork hails from Montana and was selected by Gress.

Jeff Burgett, a cook for Montana Steakhouse for seven years, said he first visited the establishment as a customer.

“I helped build the hotel over there and I came over for a drink,” Burgett said. “I had this really snotty bartender.”

The “snotty bartender” turned out to be Corbett. They have been together for the past six and a half years.

“I loved my father-in-law. He was the No. 1 inspiration in my life,” Burgett said.

Burgett and Corbett will continue the catering side of Montana Steakhouse and operate under the same name and use the same trucks. Gress also plans to help with the catering business when she’s not visiting her grandchildren, family and friends.

And though Gress usually went home before the karoake singing started, she plans to make an appearance at a farewell party that starts at 8 p.m. Saturday.

When asked if she sings, Gress responded in a sing-songy voice: “Once in a great while.”

“Oh, she’s been singing a lot lately,” Corbett said.


Murtaugh Prepares for New Elementary School

MURTAUGH • Brad Perkins owns a 61-year-old hardware store just up the road from Murtaugh’s schools.

He’s watching a new elementary school being built nearby, which is slated for completion Aug. 3.

The new school — Murtaugh’s first in 20 years — will be a hub of community life in the rural Twin Falls County town. And the vast majority of voters supported the project.

“We think it’s wonderful,” said Perkins, a Murtaugh High alumnus whose children also went through the school system. “It makes our community proud.”

Residents come to the construction site regularly to check on the progress, said Superintendent Michele Capps.

Only a few businesses along Boyd Street — the main road in town — are open. Others are vacant, some with boarded up windows.

“There’s not much building that goes on here,” Capps said, so there’s excitement about a new school. “It has just kind of brought the community together.”

Voters approved a $5.4 million bond in March 2014 for facility projects, including the new school and a vocational agriculture center that opened in December.

And they won’t see a tax increase. That’s because the middle/high school bond will be paid off.

The latest bond — which passed on the first try — garnered 75 percent support. But only 188 voters cast ballots.

And 20 years ago, it was a struggle to get approval for a new middle/high school. Voters finally supported it on the fourth try, with 67 percent approval. School officials shaved items off their wish list for the building.

It came after a failed consolidation proposal with the neighboring Hansen School District.

But things have changed, Capps says.

Across the Magic Valley, it’s a busy time for school construction projects. Improvements are being made at Jerome schools and three new Twin Falls schools will open within two years.

In Murtaugh, the new 29,500-square-foot elementary school — with a $3 million price tag — is under construction behind Murtaugh Middle/Senior High School.

The current elementary school — built in two phases in the 1930s and ‘60s — will be kept for after-school programs. It doesn’t have a cafeteria, so children walked to the high school for lunch.

The new building connects up with the middle/high school cafeteria. “We wanted to be one K-12 building,” Capps said. “That was our vision.”

The New Building

Murtaugh’s new elementary school includes 11 new classrooms — two of which will accommodate future growth.

Enrollment remained flat for about 15 years, but that changed this school year.

The district gained about 40 students, for a total of 280. Many new students are coming from outside the district’s boundaries, Capps said.

On Tuesday, crews from Starr Corp. were doing interior building work such as painting and installing windows.

The building’s main entrance is on Fourth Street. The school will include a library and media center, study rooms, music classroom and a gymnasium.

Murtaugh residents are particularly proud of a lighted “M” on a gym wall, Capps said, which will be visible all the way from Highway 30.

What about the Old Elementary School?

Capps started as a teacher in Murtaugh 23 years ago in the old elementary school building. “It’s kind of emotional for me.”

Now, the space is being reconfigured to better accommodate an after- school program for first through eighth graders, paid for by a federal grant.

About 150 children participate in activities such as dancing, cooking, sewing and games.

A kindergarten classroom will become a game room, while a third-grade classroom will be used for cooking. Students will learn about sewing in an old first-grade room. Another room is being used as a food pantry.

Crews removed a wall separating the library and music room. Now it will be used for tumbling, gymnastics and dance.

For Perkins, he’s looking forward to seeing the new spaces in both buildings.

He grew up in Murtaugh and his father opened Community True Value Hardware in 1954. Perkins took over the family business.

He’s proud of his town’s schools. And he’s particularly impressed with offerings for students once the school day ends. “Our after-school programs are second to none.”