Northwest California’s public forests, grasslands, and rivers comprise an immense but vulnerable landscape that provides habitat for fish and wildlife and helps fuel the state’s $92 billion recreation economy. In some areas, decades of clear-cut logging have disrupted the forest’s natural ability to control erosion, muddied rivers and streams, and decreased reproduction rates for some fish populations. It has also made the landscape vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire, threatening nearby communities.
Fortunately, some federal lawmakers recognize the value of intact public lands and waters and are moving to protect parts of northwest California’s mother lode, including prime salmon and steelhead habitat. A bill, authored by Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) and passed by the House of Representatives on Feb. 12, would designate 379 miles of the region’s rivers as wild and scenic, require comprehensive management plans for an additional 101 miles of existing wild and scenic rivers, and safeguard nearly 262,000 acres of surrounding public lands as wilderness. The measure was folded into a larger California public lands and rivers package—the Protecting Unique and Beautiful Landscapes by Investing in California Lands Act (S. 3288), also known as the PUBLIC Lands Act—that was introduced in the Senate by Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) on the same day it passed the House.
The act would protect segments of the Trinity, Eel, Mad, and Mattole rivers, among other waterways. The South Fork Trinity River watershed, one of the largest undammed river systems in California, supports highly vulnerable populations of salmon and steelhead and boasts dramatic scenery. The South Fork National Recreation Trail parallels the river—and its many rapids and pools—as it carves through stands of pine, fir, and oak. The bill also protects the South Fork’s highly erosive watershed by establishing three new wilderness areas and expanding another.
Eltapom Creek has been called the “gem” of the South Fork Trinity River watershed because of its abundant holding pools, dense riparian corridor, and silt-free gravel beds that, for a variety of reasons, are excellent for spawning. Also, due to heavy tree cover, the creek runs colder than most other streams in the watershed and is thus a refuge for endangered coho salmon and high densities of winter steelhead, as well as spring Chinook salmon—all of which prefer those cooler temperatures. Many other South Fork tributaries that provide crucial spawning habitat and thermal refuges for at-risk salmonids are also protected as wild and scenic in this proposal.
The legislation would also protect the Eel River, which empties into the Pacific 13 miles south of Eureka, California, and is home to three species—Chinook salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead—that have seen dramatic declines in population and are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The PUBLIC Lands Act would protect portions of the North Fork Eel River that are essential for those species’ recovery. The river canyon supports diverse habitat for several sensitive, threatened, or endangered species, including the peregrine falcon. The river provides class II-V whitewater boating opportunities and flows through the North Fork Wilderness—one of the most remote wild areas in the region.
The South Fork Eel River, which runs through Mendocino and Humboldt counties, is the spawning ground of the largest concentration of naturally reproducing anadromous salmon and steelhead in the region. (Anadromous fish are those that hatch in fresh water, mature in the ocean, and return to their native streams to spawn.) The legislation requires that the U.S. Department of the Interior develop a comprehensive management plan to protect segments of the river and key tributaries.
The PUBLIC Lands Act also would encourage management strategies, such as thinning of roadside vegetation, that would reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.
Other key provisions include establishment of a special management area where the U.S. Forest Service would take steps to enhance recreational experiences such as hunting, fishing, and mountain biking while conserving the area’s wildlife and natural resources. The bill also earmarks more than 51,000 acres as potential wilderness—that is, land that could automatically gain wilderness designation after a set period of time if certain conditions are met—and calls for a study of the feasibility of a Bigfoot National Recreation Trail to showcase the area’s botanical and biological diversity.
Northwest California’s natural systems are interdependent: Healthy forests promote clean rivers, and together they provide habitat for a diverse population of plants and animals. When these systems thrive, so do nearby communities—on many levels, including health, public safety, and economic well-being. The Pew Charitable Trusts encourages Congress to pass the PUBLIC Lands Act to safeguard these special places, and their benefits, for all Americans.
John Gilroy directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands program.