Weeks have elapsed since the last embers of the Badger Fire — which turned decades-old forest growth to ash — were extinguished.
Recent storms have washed small amounts of soot and sand down streams, but the smell of burnt trees and grasses still lingers within the canyon walls.
Among the noticeable changes in the South Hills is the noise — or the lack thereof.
The familiar sounds of fall recreation are missing as many trails and roads remain closed.
Gone are the bicycle hubs buzzing on descents of Third Fork, the “BRAPP!” from motorbikes and ATVs among the aspen groves near Bostetter Campground, and the gentle claps of horse hooves from trail riders ascending Badger Mountain.
The forest is nearly silent.
And it’s not clear when recreation will return to the South Hills or what it will look like when it does.
But when it does, the people who use the area say they hope they’ll be involved in making improvements.
Where will people go?
Lots of people from Idaho go to Moab, in southern Utah to recreate. But this spring, Utah shut down because of COVID-19. The result: More people stayed close to home.
“They shut down in the spring so people couldn’t go down to Moab and so you ended up with a big influx of people that were riding the deserts in southwestern Idaho,” Magic Valley ATV Riders club member Kent Oliver said. “That caused a lot of problems because of the sheer, enormous numbers of people who were wanting to get out and ride who (normally) would spend weeks down at Moab.”
Officials worry the Badger Fire may cause some similar problems in the South Hills. Damaged trails and campgrounds remain closed, so people could just end up going to nearby areas and change those areas.
“One of the concerns, because of the fire, is that it is going to open up terrain that could potentially see trails develop,” Idaho Department of Fish and Game spokesman Terry Thompson said. “There is concern about impacts of ATVs, motorcycles, and that on wintering big game. The fire potentially could have opened up more ground for people to recreate on.”
Oliver said some places could get overloaded with people camping where they are not supposed to, especially in the upper elevations where there is less damage from the fire.
“You might want to avoid the South Hills for the next year,” mountain biker Mike McAuley said. “Come spring, the west side, both legal and illegal users will use it and swarm it.”
Hunting impact unclear
The South Hills is a popular hunting area, a draw-hunt zone that houses mule deer, elk, moose and pronghorn.
Damage to trails, campgrounds, roads and hunting areas varies across the 90,000 acres burned in September by the Badger Fire.
Traveling up along major drainage canyons like Rock Creek and Trapper Creek reveals burned out tractors, campgrounds and bridges, but the damage becomes more patchy and mosaic-like with less damage as one reaches higher elevations.