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Cutting off the backcountry


The backcountry supply plane takes off/Linda Watkins (1984)

For about a dozen years, Linda lived and worked in Idaho’s backcountry, at some of the guest ranches, some of them in what’s now massive wilderness country, some of them nearby but still very, very remote.

In that country, Ray Arnold, who flies planes out of Cascade, was a central figure. A lot of the people in that area were isolated – really isolated – and cut off from the outside world, other than by radio communications. Arnold was, and is, a pilot, and he would make regular weekly runs through stops around the backcountry. (In the summer weekly, and in the winter monthly.) He was the central source of supplies and information, and mail. If people needed a ride from place to place, or back to town, he often helped out. He was the one reliable outside figure across a vast region. For the people who wintered in the backcountry, Arnold might be the only non-resident person you saw for four or five months. In the winter, he was the source of some of the food. Christmas packages came by way of Ray Arnold. His visits were a very big deal.

Such trips are not cheap, and part of what has helped underwrite them has been the postal run – Arnold was the mailman for the area, dropping off mail once a week or month. That federal contract (not enormous – the amount has been $46,000) didn’t pay for the travel, either, but as a part of the package, it’s helped Arnold keep flying through the area, and the backcountry keep in touch with the outside world, for decades.

Evidently now, some of that is at risk – and some will be going away. Pete Zimowsky of the Idaho Statesman is reporting that the Postal Service is canceling Arnold’s contract and ending mail delivery to the backcountry; his is the last air mail route to backcountry in the lower 48 states.

Zimowsky writes, “The U.S. Postal Service doesn’t have a clue about the vastness of Idaho and the West. It doesn’t have a clue about the backcountry folks living in the central Idaho wilderness. Many of the ranches are more than 60 miles from the nearest road. In the winter, Arnold flies in on his Cessna 185 outfitted with skis.”

The Post Office’s response evidently is: Let ’em come to town. Except, of course, that might mean they get their mail once a year.

This is going to be a bitter pill for a big area. Sounds like a job for a congressional delegation . . .

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