Featured Wilderness: Oregon's Rogue River

Your Wilderness - July 2012

Southwestern Oregon's remarkable Rogue River is the centerpiece of one of the most outstanding and ecologically rich landscapes in the United States. Starting high in the volcano-dotted Cascade Range, the Rogue River winds its way more than 200 miles through the rugged Klamath Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

The river lies in the heart of the Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion, an area where three mountain ranges converge to produce a unique mix of flora and fauna. More than 30 types of coniferous trees are found here, including temperate rain forest species such as spruce and hemlock, and dry forest trees such as ponderosa pine and juniper—sometimes growing beside one another. There are also stands of coast redwoods, Alaskan yellow cedar, and endangered Port Orford cedar.

Rocky, heavy-metal-rich soils of serpentine and peridotite are common in the area. These soils were lifted up from the seafloor and folded over and over for millions of years to create the Klamath Mountains. Vegetation has had to adapt to the mineral-deficient soil, which results in rare association groups. There are flesh-eaters and rare orchids. Of the 3,500 varieties of plants found here, more than 250 occur nowhere else on Earth.

They support a web of more than 200 kinds of butterflies, 2,000-plus varieties of moths, and almost 400 species of birds.

Rogue River, OregonThe Rogue River and its tributaries are excellent habitat for some of the healthiest populations of salmon and steelhead on the West Coast. These fish runs bring millions of dollars in commercial and recreational activity to the local economy. The area's remote and rugged nature does not deter visitors seeking world-class whitewater, fishing, and other river recreation opportunities.

In recent years, dams, such as Savage Rapids near Grants Pass, have been removed, significantly improving salmon migration and river hydrology. (Watch a short video on the dam and its removal here).

The Rogue River's deep canyons and broad, fertile valleys  also offer a rich history of human habitation, forming  the centerpiece of the native Tututni, Takelma, and Shasta communities for nearly 9,000 years. More recently, it provided the backdrop for the writings of author Zane Grey, whose  incurable passion for fishing took him around the world. In 1926, he bought an old mining cabin on Winkle Bar in the Rogue where  he spent his days fishing and writing, bringing his tales of the Old West to life. The subject of his best-known book, Rogue River Feud, is the river itself. In 2008, the Trust for Public Land purchased the Grey property so that it would be forever protected for its historic and cultural values.

The Rogue was one of the original rivers protected by the Wild and Scenic River Act in 1968. Now more than 125 miles of it is federally protected. A stretch of the river and its surrounding uplands are also protected as the Wild Rogue Wilderness. However, threats to its cold, clear waters still loom. The Bureau of Land Management recently proposed logging 500-year-old trees near the salmon-spawning habitats of Kelsey and Whiskey creeks. That action led local residents to work with river guides, anglers, and other business owners to protect the river from the small community of Galice down to the Wild Rogue Wilderness.

Their hard work has paid off. Three Oregon Democrats—Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley , and Rep. Peter DeFazio—have introduced legislation (H.R. 3436/S. 2001) to designate approximately 58,000 acres as wilderness and nearly 100 miles of new wild and scenic river designations. Federal agencies have found at least one outstanding or remarkable value in nearly all of the 34 streams. Both the House and Senate have held hearings on the legislation.

If we aim to protect our best wild places so that we continue to have clean water, healthy fish runs, and teeming wildlife, there are few landscapes as deserving as the Rogue River and its environs. Our children and grandchildren deserve to experience this river and its salmon, bears, elks, cougars, and bald eagles, just as we do today. Designating this invaluable resource as wilderness will ensure that we achieve that goal.