Life on and off the waters of the Wood River Valley
Saving Silver Creek*
Anyone who’s spent a little time down there has heard it.
You don’t even need to have good hearing to know how it sounds. Silver Creek music is something you feel.
As the man often credited with saving the spring-fed creek, Spencer Beebe, wrote in his book Cache: Creating Natural Economies, “‘Silver Creek music,’ something a blind person could enjoy with absolute wonder.” But the song of Silver Creek, so lovely to birds and their watchers, a melody that calls to fly fishers from all over the world, almost became a much different tune.
While America was in the midst of celebrating the “Spirit of ’76,” Sun Valley Company needed cash to buy more chairlifts and was selling its 476 acres along the headwaters of Silver Creek. Jack Hemingway, Papa’s eldest son, was the chair of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission. He was afraid one of the West’s finest spring streams would fall into the hands of developers, and the fishery would be ruined.
So Hemingway made a call to The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Northwest office in Oregon and a young man named Spencer Beebe answered. It only took Beebe, a fly fisherman himself, one visit to Silver Creek to get hooked on its sound. He and Hemingway then spent the rest of 1976 scrounging up financial support to purchase and preserve the property.
Thanks to their hard work, and the generosity of people like part-time Sun Valley resident George Gund, within the year a deal was struck and Silver Creek was saved. It became The Nature Conservancy’s first project in Idaho and has become, in the words of TNC’s state Director of Communications, Matt Miller, “one of our most well-known projects and a model for spring creek management.”
As Beebe explained, “Silver Creek was the first serious spring creek restoration initiative that we could identify in North America. It spawned a whole movement, an industry of stream restoration across the West.”
Last summer, Silver Creek Preserve celebrated its 35th anniversary. For the most part, the stream itself is in great shape. But like most 35-year-olds, it’s starting to show some signs of age and has put on a little weight. Make that a lot of weight.
Due in large part to the beneficence of local farm and land owners like Bud Purdy, the preserve now covers more than 10,000 acres alongside the banks of the spring creek, which meanders through mountain meadows tucked alongside the gently rolling Picabo Hills.
To help maintain the stream’s health, a Watershed Enhancement Plan is in the works. Setbacks from the creek are being widened. Riparian areas are being improved and some dredging was done. Sediment buildup is the biggest issue for Silver Creek, according to the preserve’s manager for the last seven years, Dayna Gross. Doing any work along Silver Creek isn’t always easy though.
As Gross explained, “Overall, Silver Creek is in pretty darn good shape, but spring creek restoration is a different animal. There’s a lot of sensitivity with Silver Creek. People have a lot of passion for this place.”
Perhaps no one has more passion for Silver Creek than the man who helped save it. Spencer Beebe, by his own account, hasn’t spent enough time there. He’s been “too busy saving land,” as he puts it. But when asked if he still hears Silver Creek music, Beebe emphatically answered the same way anyone who has ever heard it does: “Yes!”
*[This article originally appeared in Sun Valley Magazine's Maggie Award-winning Summer 2011 issue and was selected as the First Place Best Magazine Column by the Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC), a more than quarter-century old association consisting of professional media members covering outdoor activities across the West.]