Expanding Rogue Wilderness

Jun 25, 2014

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the Rogue River in Southern Oregon welcomes a busy summer season of rafters, kayakers and fishers.

For EarthFix, Devan Schwartz reports on a proposed expansion of the Rogue Wilderness — and why it’s taking so long to become a reality.

Conservation groups are pushing to increase the size of the Wild Rogue Wilderness in Southern Oregon.
Credit Devan Schwartz / Earthfix

The Rogue is one of the West’s most iconic rivers. And many conservationists are calling for Congress to expand the wilderness area surrounding it.

Robyn Janssen is with Rogue Riverkeeper. She helped organize a recent trip down the Rogue to highlight the river’s environmental issues.

Janssen: “So we are just entering in the actual wilderness section of the wild and scenic Rogue Wilderness.”

We’re about 20 miles from the put-in, near the deep basalt walls of Mule Creek Canyon.

Janssen: “A lot of people don’t know that the wilderness starts this far down.”

Wilderness and Wild and Scenic. They’re both conservation designations that require an act of Congress. And both bring environmental safeguards.

But wilderness protection goes further to keep wild places wild.

For example, tributaries that flow into Wild and Scenic rivers must be protected a half-mile upstream.

In wilderness, streams are often protected all the way to the headwaters.

The Rogue Wilderness would stretch about 37 miles, from put-in to take-out.

An additional 56,000 wilderness acres would more than double the current size.

Wilderness status means no new development, no new mining claims, or oil and gas drilling.

The deep basalt walls of Mule Creek Canyon are near the beginning of the Rogue River’s wilderness section.
Credit Pete Wallstrom

Janssen: “That is really key to the health and livelihood of the salmon fishery and steelhead fishery we have on the Rogue — which is actually second to the fishery in the Columbia.”

Janssen says the area’s steep side canyons and few roads have done a good job keeping so-called extraction activities at bay.

But conservation groups want Congress to protect the area from any possibility of road-building, mining or logging in the future.

And that’s where the momentum has slowed.

Morgan Lindsay is with the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. She’s asking Congress to put an end to its five-year hiatus from designating new wilderness.

Lindsay: “The last time that wilderness was designated was 2009 with a public lands omnibus bill. And a similar pathway, we hope, will open up soon for the Wild Rogue.”

Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden is the Senate’s chief advocate for the Rogue Wilderness expansion.

Wyden introduced such legislation four times in the last six years. None of those bills even saw a Senate vote.

So now, he’s taking a different approach.

The wilderness expansion is now placed within a larger bill -- one that also calls for more logging on Oregon’s public forestlands.

Supporters include prominent timber companies and county officials hoping for additional revenues from the government’s sale of timber to private companies.

Here’s Wyden at a 2013 news conference, describing the consensus he believes the bill strikes between industry and the environment.

Wyden: “Now we worked with the best scientists in the Northwest to make these harvests as ecologically friendly as we possibly could. And we listened to the conservation groups who said we need iron-class protections for clean drinking water and Oregon’s salmon and unique wildlife.”

Wyden may see it as a win-win. But some conservation groups are turning away from the larger bill — and its promise of more logging.

Again, Morgan Lindsay.

Lindsay: “So, moving forward, we hope to work with Senator Wyden to continue to protect special places but not at the expense of some of Oregon’s greatest legacies.”

Wyden’s counterparts in the House got their own bill passed in September. It expands the Rogue Wilderness and clears the way for more Oregon logging. But the Obama administration threatened a veto.

So Senator Wyden’s bill is front-and-center. He’s seeking a vote by the end of the year even as the level of support from Oregon’s environmental community remains an open question.

Pete Wallstrom, owner of Momentum River Expeditions,would like to see more environmental protection for the Wild and Scenic Rogue River.
Credit Devan Schwartz / Earthfix

Back on the river, the political issues seem far away.
Here, rafting guides like Pete Wallstrom, spend season after season on the Rogue.

Wallstrom: “There’s nothing like it in the Pacific Northwest, there’s nothing like it on the East Coast — it’s unique.”

Wallstrom says he’s taken more than 800 guests down the river in the last dozen years.
And he says that everyone responds to the wild nature of the Rogue.

Wallstrom: “Wilderness has this intrinsic value to us. I don’t know if it’s in our DNA or what, but you see people when they get on the river it kind of gives them something they’ve been missing in their everyday life. It’s huge. You see it every time you bring someone out on the river — this happiness.”

With all the whitewater and wildlife on the Rogue, it’s easy to get lost in the experience.

And most of the visitors this summer probably won’t be thinking about the conservation rules in place for this river and its surroundings.

Copyright 2014 Earthfix.