Special Places: Copper-Salmon wildlands
With no opposition, plan for Copper-Salmon Wilderness Area moves ahead.
PORT ORFORD — Jim Rogers first saw the Elk River nearly 40 years ago while working as a young timber manager for a logging company.
His mission was simple: ride herd over loggers cutting trees that grow tall in this rain-soaked coastal drainage inside the northwest corner of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
"I was in charge of most of the logging in the Elk River watershed back then," he recalled. "But I saw what we were doing to it and started to realize the values we were destroying. I knew we shouldn't destroy this place.
"Here was this wilderness river right near Highway 101," he added. "Everything to the north and south has been pretty much logged. But here was this intact watershed so close to civilization."
Rogers, now 65 and sporting a white beard, has another mission: to help create a 12,000-acre Copper-Salmon Wilderness Area in the Elk River drainage about 14 miles as the crow flies east of Port Orford.
The longtime local resident, who has a forestry degree from Syracuse University, has been joined by more than 10 fishing and hunting groups as well as the Port Orford Chamber of Commerce, the City Council, the Curry County Board of Commissioners and Gov. Ted Kulongoski in supporting the wilderness proposal. The short river, whose champagne-clear water flows into the Pacific just north of Port Orford, is known as a world-class stream for silvery steelhead and lunker salmon.
In a letter to U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, whose 4th Congressional District includes Curry County, Port Orford Mayor Jim Auborn noted he was aware of no opposition to the proposal. A member of DeFazio's staff was touring the proposed wilderness on Thursday.
"The main reason this should be a wilderness is to protect the watershed," explained Jerry Becker, 56, a local sports fisherman. "It needs to be healthy for the fishery. That's what it is all about.
"I look at this watershed as the infrastructure that supports our ecotourism and sports fishing as well as commercial fishing," he added. "The only way to have water quality is to have a healthy watershed. We get the most benefit out of this land by keeping it intact so it supports our fisheries."
"The fishery is the lifeblood of Port Orford," Rogers observed.
For nearly a dozen years, Rogers and Becker, who both live on the north bank of the river outside the national forest, have been pushing for wilderness designation of the Copper-Salmon roadless area.
The new wilderness would be immediately east of the 17,000-acre Grassy Knob Wilderness, which they helped create in 1984 to preserve fish habitat along the mid-section of the Elk. The Copper and Salmon mountains are just east of Grassy Knob.
With an average 160 inches of rain a year, the roadless area is an emerald green rainforest. Green moss carpets the forest floor. Douglas fir, Port Orford cedar and hemlock form a dripping canopy overhead. Rhododendrons bloom pink; trilliums add white to offset the green landscape. The roadless area is home to Roosevelt elk, black-tailed deer, black bear and cougar.
When it comes to salmon and steelhead fishing, the Elk River is one of the best in the nation, said Eagle Point resident Mike Beagle, Pacific Northwest field coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Oregon and Washington. Given the region's burgeoning population, it makes sense to protect the prime fishing area for future generations, said the 1981 graduate of Eagle Point High School.
"Having grown up here, I'm concerned we're pushing 300,000 people in Jackson and Josephine counties now," said the former South Medford High School history teacher. "And we're looking at 3.6 million in the state.
"We need these special places for our kids," he added. "I don't want to be telling my kids, 'Boy, fishing used to be great here.'"
Creating the wilderness would establish a permanent source of income for the local area, Becker reiterated.
"But if we don't get any legislation on this by this fall, we're probably doomed to wait a couple of more years," Becker said, noting the presidential campaign that is already warming up will sideline other issues.
Wilderness supporters say the water is clear because the watershed in the national forest is largely intact. Moreover, the ground is fairly rocky, producing little silt during the common downpours, they say.
"We might get a foot of rain in a three- or four-day period and it might color up a little, but it doesn't turn to mud like other rivers do," Becker said. "Part of the joy of fishing these waters is that you can get a pretty good rain and this river will still be fishable whereas the others will be muddy."
But Rogers, who continues to work as a forestry consultant, including logging projects on private parcels, said logging in that steep drainage would change the water quality.
"Where we could get away with something in other watersheds, we couldn't in the Elk," he said of logging in the late 1960s. "We would cause a lot of landslides and a lot of timber left standing would blow down. You get tremendous storms up here."
He recalls his firm was completing a clearcut on one side of the river while another firm was completing another on the opposite side. They left about a 400-foot buffer of trees between the two clearcuts, he said.
"One windy day I heard trees going down," he said. "I went down there and saw the buffer being blown down. The ground is so steep one tree would hit an another and down they went. It blew down 18 acres in a couple of hours."
Rogers the logger bought the salvage sale and harvested the timber. But Rogers the activist never forgot the sight of trees uprooting and crashing down like so many dominoes.
"I became more of an activist, eventually falling into what I am now: no more logging in the Elk River watershed. Period," he said.Read the original story