Remembering the life and legacy of conservationist Will Venard

By Jerry Pavia and Brad Smith
Reader Contributors

The conservation community in North Idaho recently lost a dear friend and advocate. Will Venard was a member of the Idaho Conservation League (ICL) for more than 40 years. He was one of the founders of

Will Venard was a member of ICL for more than 40 years. Courtesy photo.

in 1976, which became a chapter of the ICL in 1981.

The Boundary Backpackers was formed to protect Long Canyon and the Selkirk Crest as wilderness. At the time, the Forest Service had made plans to build roads into Long Canyon and harvest its old-growth timber. Long Canyon is only one of two remaining roadless watersheds in the Selkirks. The group formed to oppose the Forest Service’s plans, and wilderness designation was their answer.

Will named the group when a reporter from the local paper asked him who they were, and Will — on the spot — came up with the name Boundary Backpackers. Until that moment, the group had no name. It was also Will’s idea that Boundary Backpackers have no officers and no dues. 

The main principles he put forth for the organization of the group were to always tell the truth. If the answer was unknown, the group would get back to the questioner after researching for an answer. He also suggested that the group would reject no ideas that were positive in furthering the goal of wilderness for Long Canyon and the Selkirk Crest. For him, negativity was a no-no.

Every September since the late-1970s, Will worked alongside other members of the Boundary Backpackers in reopening and improving the 18-mile trail in Long Canyon. Together they spent seven to 10 days in the Canyon working on improving the trail. It’s now the gem of the trail system in the region.

Improving trails wasn’t the only hard work the group did — the proposal to protect Long Canyon was hugely unpopular at the time. Will and the Backpackers stood up to tremendous political pressure from former-Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, the timber industry and the Forest Service. People they used to be friends with in the community stopped talking to them and avoided them in the grocery store.

Despite these hardships, Will stood up for what he believed in, and gave others the fortitude to do the same.

Will traveled the state with Jerry Pavia in 1984 and presented a 17-minute Long Canyon-Selkirk Crest slideshow to bring awareness about wilderness to different communities. Long Canyon and the Selkirk Crest were included in two pieces of wilderness legislation introduced in the late-1980s and early-1990s. Unfortunately, these bills fell victim to national politics.

While official wilderness status for Long Canyon and the Selkirk Crest has not yet been achieved, Will and the Backpackers still made lasting change for the area. The Forest Service gave up on its plan to log Long Canyon. In fact, when the Forest Service revised the management plan for the Idaho Panhandle National Forest in 2015, the agency changed Long Canyon from a timber management area to a proposed wilderness area. This would not have happened without Will and the Boundary Backpackers.

Will was also instrumental in encouraging the Boundary Backpackers to expand their mission to include all environmental issues that affected Boundary County and worked to get the Selkirk Mountain Caribou and the Kootenai River Sturgeon on the Endangered Species List. These were only a few of the issues that he worked on with others over the years. 

Will was a man of great integrity. He was a man who knew the value in listening to the opinions of others. He’ll be greatly missed by all those who knew him.

Jerry Pavia was a co-founder of the Boundary Backpackers and served as president of the Idaho Conservation League Board of Directors from 1995-2002. Brad Smith is the North Idaho director of the Idaho Conservation League.

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