Environmental News

Is Oregon About to Get a Shiny New Wilderness Area?

The Senate just passed a massive public lands package—and it includes some sweet promises for lovers of Oregon's rainforests and rivers.

By Wriik Maui February 14, 2019

Old growth in the proposed Devil's Staircase Wilderness Area—some 30,000 acres just east of Reedsport, partly flanked by the Umpqua River

Image: Tim Giraudier

On February 12, the Senate passed—in a staggeringly bipartisan 98–2 vote—a landmark public lands package spearheaded by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), cosponsored by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and 15 other senators. S.47, the Natural Resources Management Act of 2019, is packed with public lands presents for at least 40 states, including protection for more than 1.3 million national acres, a shoring up of the nation’s volcano monitoring system (much obliged!), and reauthorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. (Long a priority of Oregon's senior senator.)

Inside S.47—which now moves to the House of Representatives—are pieces of the Oregon Wildlands Act, a Wyden jam that aimed, among other things, to expand the Wild Rogue Wilderness. That proposal was dropped from S.47. But moving forward are other features that please conservation organizations like Oregon Wild: language that would designate an additional 256 miles of Wild and Scenic Oregon rivers (including along the Molalla, Chetco, and Rogue rivers) as well as protect some 30,000 acres of coastal old-growth forest as Oregon’s brand-new Devil’s Staircase Wilderness Area.

According to Erik Fernandez, Oregon Wild's Wilderness Program Manager, wilderness status is “the gold standard when it comes to protecting our public lands”—taking new roadways and resource extraction permanently off the table. 

Devil’s Staircase, named after a waterfall in the Wasson Creek watershed, is so remote, Fernandez says, even hiking isn't recommended. The area, canopied in old-growth Douglas fir and Western red cedar is home to one of the state’s highest concentrations of the rare spotted owl. It's threaded with waterways like the Smith and Umpqua rivers, which are home to threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. Oregon has about 33 million acres of public land—only four percent of which, Fernandez says, are currently protected as wilderness

The eponymous waterfall of the proposed Devil's Staircase Wilderness

Image: Tim Giraudier

“Anyone who has driven through the Oregon Coast Range has seen clearcut after clearcut, after clearcut,” he says. “The Devil’s Staircase is one of the last intact old-growth forests in the coastal range.”

If approved by the House (and signed into law by the President), the legislation would represent the culmination of four decades of grassroots advocacy efforts to protect this largely roadless area east of Reedsport in Oregon's central Coast Range. For the last 10 years, Senators Wyden and Jeff Merkley have joined the push for federal wilderness designation.

If the Act becomes law, that also means Oregon will have nearly 2,200 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers—more designated river miles than any other state in the lower 48. Oregon currently has 58 rivers that claim the designation in certain stretches (about 1,900 miles), amounting to almost two percent of the state’s river miles. 

As of press time, partner legislation had yet to be introduced within the House. Stay up to date on the bill’s progress here.

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