Frank Church

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is a generous tract of designated public land that stretches throughout the heart of the state of Idaho. It exists as the second largest wilderness area in the continental United States (second to the Death Valley Wilderness in California and Nevada) and is ripe with steep canyon walls, clear, billowing creeks, flourishing plant and animal species and fresh alpine air. Across the northern half of its almost 2.4 million acres runs the Wild and Scenic Salmon River, and to the south flows the highly popular Middle Fork of the Salmon River on which countless rafters, kayakers and other recreationists spend the summer months.

The "Frank" is truly one of the nation's most valuable treasures, stellar in its size and captivating in its beauty, and although many know of its physical existence, what is known of the man for which it is named? Without the diligence and political effort of Frank Forrester Church III, the "Frank" and many other wild places across the lower forty-eight may not be in existence today. 

Frank Church III was born on July 25, 1924 in Boise, Idaho to Frank Forrester Church Jr. and his wife Laura. The third to be bestowed with his given name, he also entered the world as the Church family's third generation to be born in Idaho. This multi-generational existence in the state gave the family considerable clout, and Church was raised in a modest, yet well-respected and politically conservative, home. In his eighth grade year, Church developed an admiration for Senator William Borah (R-ID) and decided early in life that he wanted to pursue a career in politics. That same year the local newspaper published a letter written by Church about Borah's foreign policy stance on its front page. This led to community-wide recognition of young Church's intelligence and political savy. 

In Church's junior year at Boise High School he won the American Legion National Oratorical Contest by giving a speech titled, "The American Way of Life." This was a pivotal experience in Church's life because the prize money was enough to pay for four years at the college of his choice. After completing his senior year as class president, Church enrolled at Stanford University in 1942. 

In 1943, Church set aside his formal education and enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving as an intelligence officer in China, Burma and India. Upon his discharge in 1946, he returned to Stanford to complete his bachelor's degree, graduating in 1947. That same year he married Bethine Clark, daughter of the former governor of Idaho. Together the couple had two sons, Frank Forrester Church IV and Chase Clark Church. 

Church spent the following year studying at Harvard Law School, but decided to return to Stanford Law School, due to New England's cold climate. While at Harvard, he experienced a bout of chronic pain in his lower back, which doctor's in California eventually diagnosed as cancer. Amazingly, after being given only several months to live, Church recovered from his illness and was given a second chance at life. Later he would state that this second opportunity is what inspired him to live life to its fullest, "…life itself is such a chancy proposition that the only way to live is by taking great chances." 

After graduating from Stanford Law School in 1950, Church returned to his hometown of Boise to practice law with the Federal Price Control Agency. 

As an independent teen-ager, Church had strayed from his family's support of the Republican Party, becoming interested in Democratic views on political issues. This individuality continued into his adult life, and after being defeated in a 1952 run for the state legislature, Church ran on the Democratic ballot for the United States Senate in 1956. Church defeated Republican opponent Herman Welker to become, at 32, the fifth youngest member in history to serve in the U.S. Senate. 

In his political career Church primarily focused on issues concerning American foreign policy and wilderness preservation. During the 1960s he staunchly opposed the war in Vietnam and would continue to oppose U.S. involvement in the conflict throughout three re-elections in 1962, 1968 and 1974. Despite his somewhat liberal stance in a conservative state, Church became the only Democrat in Idaho's history to win re-election to the U.S. Senate. 

During his career Church was a vital part of the wilderness preservation movement. In 1964 he acted as the floor sponsor of the National Wilderness Act and in 1968 sponsored the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. He also played a prominent role in establishing recreation areas such as the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area bordering Oregon, Washington and Idaho and the Sawtooth Wilderness and National Recreation Area in central Idaho. 

Church received several honors for his preservation work. In 1965 he became the chairman of the Subcommittee on Public Lands, was voted Conservationist of the Year by the Idaho Wildlife Federation and in 1966 received the National Conservation Legislative Award. 

On March 19, 1976 in Idaho City, Idaho, Church announced his candidacy for President of the United States, going on to win primaries in Nebraska, Idaho, Oregon and Montana. In support of Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, however, Church ultimately withdrew from the race, though he is still the only Idahoan to win a major party primary election. 

During his last year in office, 1980, Church played a large role in the formation of Idaho's River of No Return Wilderness, at the time, the largest wilderness area outside of Alaska. Though he ran for re-election that same year, he was defeated by Republican congressman Steve Symms by only one percent of the vote. After a twenty-four year stint in office, Church went on to practice law with the Washington D.C. firm of Whitman and Ransom. Aside from his law practice, he spent the next several years writing, traveling and lecturing on international affairs. 

On January 12, 1984 Church was hospitalized for a pancreatic tumor. Four months later on April 7, he passed away at his home in Bethesda, Maryland at the age of 59. In honor of his political work in the realm of wilderness preservation, President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 98-231, designating the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness as the new name for the former River of No Return Wilderness. 


Church, F. (1985). Father and Son. New York: Harper and Row Publishers Inc.

Frank Church Institute at Boise State University 

Hansen, R. and Roberts, D. (1988). The Frank Church Papers. Boise, ID: Boise State University. 

Wikipedia. Frank Church.