Government protection should be thrown around every wild grove and forest on the mountains, as it is around every private orchard, and trees in public parks. To say nothing of their value as fountains of timber, they are worth infinitely more than all the gardens and parks of towns.
Figure 1. Wasson Lake in the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness, established in 2019. Source: George Wuerthner, first appearing in the author’s book Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness (Timber Press, 2004).
Compared to its political equal Washington, arch-liberal California, arch-conservative Idaho, and politically purple Nevada, Oregon has the least designated wilderness acreage and the smallest percentage of the state’s lands protected as wilderness. The last public lands conservation bill that passed in Congress, in March 2019, yielded only one modest-sized new wilderness area for Oregon.
The potential for adding Oregon lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System is quite large. It’s time. Congress should act expeditiously to expand the National Wilderness Preservation System in Oregon.
Our One New Wilderness Area
The establishment of the 32,000-acre Devil’s Staircase Wilderness (Map 1) in March 2019 caused me to update my paper The National Wilderness Preservation System in Oregon. I, and others, first advocated for what was then proposed as the Wasson Creek Wilderness in 1979. We came relatively close to getting it protected in the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Act, but close was not good enough.
Lower Wasson (sometimes spelled “Wassen”) Creek was then owned by International Paper, which had a paper mill in Gardiner, north of Reedsport. A small band of us found a boat to cross the Smith River in the early morning fog, and we bushwhacked up Wasson Creek through beautiful old-growth forest that IP hadn’t logged yet. We didn’t know exactly where the private land gave way to public lands, as it was before GPS (though I think the heavy canopy would absorb the signals anyway). However, we knew that water always flowed downhill and that we were in a very steep canyon. So upstream we plodded. After a very long day, just before dark we came to what we then thought was the Devil’s Staircase. It was a falls in staircase form and we had a devil of a time getting there, after all. Today the informal name of that unmapped falls is Folly Falls.
As we trespassed again across the IP land, we knew that magnificent virgin forest was not long for this world. It was subsequently clear-cut. The 2,598 acres of still-private land is now owned by Ecotrust Forest Management (EFM), a private forestry investment organization practicing more responsible and climate-smarter forestry. The private land abuts the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness and the Wasson Creek Wild and Scenic River (which starts above and includes Wasson Lake). Perhaps EFM might sometime sell the parcel to the Forest Service with an eye toward eventually expanding the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness and extending the Wasson Creek Wild and Scenic River to the Smith River.
Until 1995, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management tried their level best to log the roadless area, though it was incredibly steep. Finally, the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet received protection under the Endangered Species Act and the 1995 Northwest Forest Plan came along and took the area out of the timber base.
It took four decades to save the Wasson Creek—oops, I mean the Devil’s Staircase—area, but of course the wait was worth it.
The Second Battle to Save the Devil’s Staircase
Part of the allure of the Devil’s Staircase is that it’s a quadruple bitch (a term of art used by hiking connoisseurs) of a destination to get to. I haven’t made it yet (other battles have called), but others who took up the cause of the Devil’s Staircase roadless area did make it to the actual Devil’s Staircase and were inspired to politically carry the wilderness area across the congressional finish line.
No sooner had the ink from President Trump’s pen dried than some were clamoring for the Forest Service to blaze a trail into the Devil’s Staircase. As I told the Salem Statesman-Journal, “The Devil’s Staircase is not something that should be merely experienced in a short day-hike with enough time to get back in cell range to post one’s selfie before hitting the brewpub. It should continue to be hard enough for one to put it on one’s bucket list.”
The first battle to save the Devil’s Staircase centered on protecting it from roading and clear-cutting. The second battle to save the Devil’s Staircase will center on protecting it from hordes and litter.
The problem is that there are too many Oregonians already. As I said to the Statesman-Journal, “Increasing hordes mean defiled wilderness unless use is limited by government. If the Devil’s Staircase area is to retain its primeval wonder, no trails.”
Yet all the additional people clamoring to hike the trails have not yet translated into Oregon’s federal elected officials doing more to save wilderness. Wilderness is more popular than ever before, and the need to protect it has never been greater.
Oregon Wilderness Acreage Compared to the Adjacent States
Compared to its four adjacent neighbors, Oregon has the smallest percentage of its lands designated as units of the National Wilderness Preservation System (Table 1). While the average of the areas of the five states protected as wilderness is ~9 percent, in Oregon ~4 percent of the land is so protected. Oregon has forty-nine wilderness areas totaling 2,507,239 acres.
The last column in Table 1 shows how many additional acres of wilderness Congress would need to designate in order for Oregon to achieve percentage parity with each of its neighbors. Fortunately, Oregon has the roadless wildland acres to do it—additional potential wilderness areas (a.k.a. roadless areas) in Oregon total nearly 13.5 million acres (see Tables 3 and 4)—if we have the political will.
Wilderness Rankings of Selected Members of the Oregon Congressional Delegation
Oregon’s peak period of wilderness protection was 1984—a time when Big Timber, if it did not buy and sell almost all Oregon politicians, at least leased and rented them. At the time, the only question was whether a politician was in the hip pocket or the breast pocket of Big Timber. Wilderness was, and apparently still is, the political issue in Oregon that separates the adults from the children. Unlike today, both of Oregon’s US senators in 1984 were Republicans.
Table 2 compares the number of wilderness acres protected with the sponsorship or support of selected US senators and representatives from Oregon.
Wilderness is an anchor to windward. Knowing it is there, we can also know we are still a rich nation, tending to our resources as we should—not a people in despair searching every last nook and cranny of our land for a board of lumber, a barrel of oil, a blade of grass, or a tank of water.
—Senator Clinton Anderson (D-NM), principal sponsor of the first Wilderness Act
Senator Ron Wyden needs to designate another million acres of wilderness to surpass his predecessors, Republican senators Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood. Representative Peter DeFazio (D-4th-OR) needs to establish 914,682 (but who’s counting?) more acres of wilderness to surpass his predecessor Representative Jim Weaver (D-4th-OR).
In 1975, at Hat Point overlooking Hells Canyon, I heard Senator Bob Packwood say, “If we save all the roadless areas that are left as wilderness, in fifty years it won’t be half enough.” In 1986 at Buckhorn, also overlooking Hells Canyon, I heard him say it again. As true today as ever.
The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness lies the preservation of the World.
—Henry David Thoreau
The Total Oregon Wilderness Resource: Protected and Unprotected, Generally Forested and Generally Tree-Free
The Oregon wilderness resource—both congressionally designated wilderness and de facto wilderness (wild in fact but not [yet] in law)—can be grouped as either
• generally forested (which includes areas above timberline), with most but not all being part of the National Forest System, administered by the Forest Service (also Bureau of Land Management and US Fish and Wildlife Service holdings), or
• generally tree-free (the Sagebrush Sea, a.k.a. sagebrush-steppe, a.k.a. Oregon High Desert), with most but not all being Bureau of Land Management holdings (also National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and State of Oregon holdings).
The operative word is generally. Besides the obviously forested, generally forested land includes areas above timberline in the Cascade Range, East Cascade Slope and Foothills, Klamath Mountains, and Blue Mountains, as well as natural openings of wet and dry meadows, lakes, serpentine soils of the Klamath Mountains (which are generally hostile to tree growth), and more.
Table 3 tallies the acreage of congressionally protected wilderness areas, roadless areas the Forest Service has inventoried and for which a modicum of regulatory protection exists (but watch those loopholes!), larger roadless areas (more than 5,000 acres), and smaller roadless areas (less than 4,999 acres but at least 1,000 acres). All have wilderness values and contribute to Oregon’s total wilderness resource.
Again, the operative word is generally. Besides the obviously tree-free sagebrush-dominated landscape, generally tree-free wilderness resources include vast stands of western juniper woodlands (more open than a forest but with more trees than a savannah), quaking aspen groves, mahogany patches, and relic (left over from the Pleistocene) stands of ponderosa pine and white fir.
Table 4 totals up the acreage of congressionally protected wilderness areas, interim congressionally somewhat-protected BLM wilderness study areas, lands that the BLM has recently identified as having wilderness characteristics but that don’t have interim protection, additional wildlands that the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ODNA) has inventoried, roadless areas in national wildlife refuges, and roadless areas on lands administered by the State of Oregon. This most latter figure may increase as ONDA completes its inventory of the remaining state lands.
The Long Game
Achieving designation of a wilderness area can take decades. However, once designated as wilderness by Congress, an area has the closest thing to permanent protection that exists. Much blood, toil, and sweat, and many tears have been expended to get the units in the National Wilderness Preservation System that Oregon has today. More such expenditures are ongoing and will be needed far into the future. Congress should act expeditiously to expand the National Wilderness Preservation System in Oregon.
(I am indebted to Erik Fernandez of Oregon Wild and Craig Miller of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, who are the keepers of their organizations’ respective wildlands inventories.)
Woe to them that join house to house; that lay field to field, till there is no room, that you may dwell alone in the midst of the earth.
Oregon Wilderness Resources
• Andy Kerr, March 2019, The National Wilderness Preservation System in Oregon (Ashland, OR: The Larch Company).
• Andy Kerr, Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2000).
• Andy Kerr, Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2004).
• Oregon Wild (http://www.oregonwild.org), the premier forest wilderness organization in the state.
• Oregon Natural Desert Association (http://onda.org), the premier desert wilderness organization in the state.
• Douglas W. Scott, The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our Natural Heritage through the Wilderness Act (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2004).
• George Wuerthner, Oregon Wilderness Areas: The Complete Guide (Boulder, CO: Westcliffe Publishers, 2003).
• Wilderness.net (http://www.wilderness.net), created in 1996 through a collaborative partnership between the Wilderness Institute at the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation, the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center, and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute.