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Siskiyou area seeks protected status

A former timber manager works to slip the proposed Copper Salmon Wilderness Area into a Mount Hood wilderness act
Sunday, August 28, 2005

PORT ORFORD -- In the beginning, Jim Rogers didn't think winning wilderness protection for a pristine rain forest tucked into the steep slopes of the Siskiyou Mountains would be so difficult. The idea had plenty of support, little organized opposition and would help protect a thriving salmon fishery.

Eight years later, the former timber manager-turned-activist is no closer than when he started. But now Rogers sees a new chance for the proposed Copper Salmon Wilderness Area.

He hopes to grab on to the coattails of a move to preserve land on Mount Hood and add the Southern Oregon site to the list.

The last time Congress approved a wilderness designation for Oregon land was five years ago, protecting 175,000 acres of Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon. Supporters hope Congress will do the same for about 179,000 acres in the Mount Hood National Forest.

A wilderness designation closes an area to development, such as logging or mining, and to motorized vehicles and equipment, but leaves it open to activities such as hiking, fishing, hunting and camping.

Slipping Copper Salmon's 11,000 acres into the Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness Act would primarily protect the area against logging. The Elk River flows through the land and is one of the most productive spawning grounds for coho salmon in the lower 48 states. It also supports chinook salmon and steelhead.

Here, 700-year-old Douglas firs and Port Orford cedars stretching 200 feet tall shade the mountainside, providing habitat for the endangered spotted owl and the marbled murrelet. It's also home to one of the largest remaining stands of old-growth, disease-free Port Orford cedar, Rogers said.

"The Elk River is a relatively intact, fully functioning natural ecosystem that is totally surrounded by intensely managed land," Rogers said. "Only 5 percent of Oregon low-elevation coastal forest is protected. Reserves like the proposed Copper Salmon Wilderness hold the gene pools for countless species of plants and animals that have been lost in clear-cut land."

He didn't always think that way. About 30 years ago, Rogers was a timber manager for Western States Plywood, responsible for building the logging roads that traverse the area and for harvesting thousands of trees. But he experienced a gradual conversion that began one day when he went walking along the Elk River with a friend who was a fish biologist and learned how the logging affected the rich spawning grounds.

He helped get a wilderness designation for Grassy Knob, a similar area next to the proposed Copper Salmon site, and has turned his attention to this latest cause.

Gordon Reeves, a biologist with the U.S Forest Service, has researched Elk River for 15 years.

"It's amazing," he said. "It is a very productive piece of ground that has some really unique characteristics in terms of its production, the mix of fish, the habitat conditions. In terms of diversity, it's one of the hottest spots around. It's definitely a real gem."

The problem is, the proposed area is small, remote and obscure, said Steve Pedery, wildland advocate for the Oregon Natural Resources Council, a statewide conservation group based in Portland.

"As we get into a congressional debate, the farther these little places are away from the silhouette of the mountain, the tougher it's going to be to get them in the bill," Pedery said. "It's not a reflection that they're not worth protecting; it's that you're dealing with elected officials. It's the ones with big name recognition that are the easy ones to protect."

In Southern Oregon, the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council has been working about 20 years to get 32,000 acres of wilderness protected near Ashland, and in Central Oregon, work has been ongoing to protect two proposed wilderness areas, the Badlands near Bend and Spring Basin on the John Day River near Fossil, for about three years. Supporters of both also are hoping to see those areas drafted into the Mount Hood designation.

Protecting land under the Wilderness Act is historically a long and often difficult process, Pedery said, particularly in Oregon, where less than 4 percent of state land has been designated as wilderness. That compares with 10 percent in Washington and 13 percent in California, he said.

"It takes a while. There's the basic figuring out if the land is wilderness quality, then working with the local folks in the community to build a case for protecting it. Then it's time to go to the local congressman and state senators and build a case to them," Pedery said.

Opposition generally comes from the timber industry, all-terrain-vehicle riders and others who have an economic interest in opening the forest for private use, he said.

"What's interesting about Copper Salmon is the level of community support. That makes it unique," Pedery said.

The Curry County Board of Commissioners supports it, as does the Port Orford and North Curry County Chamber of Commerce. Former Gov. John Kitzhaber wrote a letter of support to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden. Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, who raised his family on the southern coast and maintains a home in Bandon, has been a champion of the cause from the beginning.

"I've not heard one person opposing it," County Commissioner Marlyn Schafer said.

The Oregon congressional delegation is working on a draft of the Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness Act to present to Congress. Two public hearings have been held, and delegations members are still taking comment.

Meanwhile, Rogers will fight for the Copper Salmon designation as long as it takes.

"It's what I am going to do until I die. When I worked for the timber industry, I wondered is this all there is? It just didn't seem right," he said. "I guess I prefer the idea of saving Elk River and dying penniless."

Lori Tobias: 541-265-9394; loritobias@aol.com




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