ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

U.S. mail planes will continue to fly along the last backcountry mail route in the Lower 48 States. The postmaster general has decided to continue the service, reversing a decision to end 50 years of weekly flights into the mountainous wilderness of Idaho.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: The Postal Service cited a $6 billion deficit and $46,000 in savings when it canceled the weekly mail plane route. And it offered instead free post office boxes in a town not easily reached by Doug Tims at the Campbell's Ferry Ranch. Listen carefully because Tims called on a satellite that doesn't work well deep down in the Salmon River Canyon he calls home.

Mr. DOUG TIMS (Campbell's Ferry Ranch): You know, it's a good 60 miles, as the crow flies over the most rugged country on the planet. There's a number of ridges and mountains that go up to about 7,000 or 8,000 feet. It would probably take us three or four days of very tough hiking. Actually, this time of year, you probably couldn't do it at all given the snow in the passes.

BERKES: Now, Tims could also drive to the post office box. That first involves four miles of hiking, then six miles on a kidney-crushing dirt road hugging a canyon wall, and then about 250 more miles of gravel and pavement.

Similar expeditions faced 20 other ranches, lodges and a university research station scattered throughout Central Idaho wilderness. That's just to get mailed letters, documents, medicine, clothing, parts and other supplies. So the Postal Service backed down. Here's spokesman Al DeSarro.

Mr. AL DESARRO (Spokesman, United States Postal Service): We realized that there is no other really feasible mail service alternative that did not present a hardship to these customers other than the current air taxi contract.

BERKES: Now, the Postal Service was slow on the uptake on this one. The Idaho Congressional Delegation pressed hard and encountered stiff resistance.

Mr. BRAD HOAGLUN (Spokesman, Idaho Senator Jim Risch): It was clear they didn't understand Idaho's backcountry.

BERKES: Brad Hoaglun is a spokesman and policy advisor for Idaho Senator Jim Risch. Hoaglun describes a frustrating conference call with Postal Service staffers, Easterners who just didn't get it, he says. So Idaho's senator sent a letter to Postmaster General John Potter, quoting Potter's recent testimony before a Senate subcommittee.

Mr. HOAGLUN: He said, we must make our services available at the same price in both easy to serve locations and locations so remote they can only be reached by mule, by swamp boat or by bush plane. So we used his words to say, look, you said you were going to provide this level of service no matter what it takes, and we want that to continue.

BERKES: Potter was in a bind. He seemed to be defying his own promise to Congress, and he was making it virtually impossible for some Americans to get their mail, all to shave the Postal Service deficit by seven ten thousandths of a percent.

The postmaster general backed down yesterday, just before a meeting with Idaho senators and congressmen, acknowledging that the alternative plan would not provide acceptable service and that the obligation to provide service meant the weekly mail plane would still fly.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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