In Congress: Another Avenue for Rogue and Devil's Staircase Wilderness

Like a peaceful walk in the wilderness, things in Congress were pretty quiet in February. There was, however, action on a few items of interest to the wilderness community.

Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio (D), Kurt Schrader (D), and Greg Walden (R) released draft legislation that included designating 58,000 acres of new wilderness along the Rogue River canyon and almost 30,000 acres surrounding Wassen Creek in Oregon's Coast Range. Bills protecting these two areas are pending in the House as stand-alone legislation, H.R. 3436 and 1413, respectively.

The Rogue River, its tributaries, and the surrounding uplands provide habitat for the threatened spotted owl, river otters, osprey, and elk. The Rogue is the second-largest producer of steelhead and Pacific salmon in Oregon and is internationally recognized for its fishing and boating opportunities. The main stem river, along with such tributaries as Kelsey and Whisky creeks, provides valuable spawning habitat for chinook salmon. Outdoor recreation, tourism, and the fishing industry are vital contributors to the local economy.

Considered one of the most secluded locations in Oregon, Wassen Creek and its rugged canyons are home to some of the finest examples of untouched old-growth rain forest left in the Coast Range. Many native species are found here, including spotted owls, elk, black bears, mountain lions, river otters, and mink. Protection of this area is centered on the remote Devil's Staircase, a series of waterfalls and plunge pools carved into the limestone bedrock over many thousands of years.

The remainder of the draft legislation is designed to transfer certain lands into a timber trust to create a sustainable supply of timber, in order to generate much-needed revenue to Oregon counties. It would also shift approximately 1 million acres of BLM land to the Forest Service, where old-growth reserves will continue to be protected but where other lands will be subject to general forest-management practices. Conservationists may find new conservation opportunities in these unusual ecosystems, including forest and watershed restoration.

As written, it is unlikely that this proposed legislation will be adopted by this Congress, but it is heartening to see the Oregon delegation's bipartisan commitment to protecting these national treasures. The inclusion of these unique areas in this draft bill provides yet another route to eventually protecting them as wilderness.

Senate Hears Land Exchange Bill on Resolution Copper

On Feb. 9, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, in an unusual move, held a hearing on two versions of legislation addressing the same issue. Resolution Copper of Arizona is interested in a federal land exchange so it can expand its mining operation. In the previous Congress, committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) negotiated an agreement to allow the copper mine to expand. However, in the current Congress, the House approved legislation more favorable to the mining company and unacceptable to Sen. Bingaman and many in the conservation community. The committee hearing examined both versions of the proposed exchange.

Witnesses from the Departments of Interior and Agriculture voiced concerns with the House-passed legislation, focusing mainly on the likely inability to adequately protect water supplies due to a provision that requires environmental reviews only after the exchange has occurred. Those testifying were more supportive of the settlement negotiated by Sen. Bingaman, in which the exchange would come after environmental reviews and would have to be in the public interest.

Wilderness advocates are monitoring this legislation closely because it could be included in a larger package of bills, which could include now-pending wilderness legislation that may move through the Senate before the end of the year.