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Building the Opal Creek Trail: Saving an Oregon Treasure

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Back in 1987, up at the mining camp at Jawbone Flats, we were discussing the Forest Service plan to build 11 miles of roads and clear-cut 1700-acres of Ancient Forest in Opal Creek. Jawbone is at the confluence of Opal and Battle Ax Creeks, where they form the Little North Fork Santiam Wild and Scenic River.

Over and over thru the years, such Forest Service plans had been beaten back. George Jorge Heyita Atiyeh, Tony George, Susan Nugent, Mike Swaim, Michael Brock Evans, Dinah Ross, Kathy Olcutt, Wendell Wood and other allies had skillfully used Appeals and Lawsuits and Wilderness Addition proposals to hold them at bay. But, this time it looked bleak. We were running out of paper monkey wrench options. We talked of how we were going to have to publicize Opal Creek…of how George would have to become the media face of the effort, how we would need to mount a roadshow and talk to any group, Rotary Clubs, churches,…anyone who would listen, anyone Susan Gordon and others could arrange for us to talk to.

Bart Smith brought up “Let’s build a trail in, so the public can see what’s at risk.” Up until then, the mining gang had kept people out of Opal Creek. Very few had ever been there – maybe 50 at most. So, George was having none of this “trail nonsense.” He had grown up there in summers and had first hiked alone up Opal Creek at age nine. He had always kept people out. Oregon original, mountain man/miner Grandpa Hewitt had been doing that for decades and George and his cousins all knew the drill.

So, we batted the trail idea around. We knew we needed to raise a constituency if we were to save Opal Creek. But, we also knew that places could get loved to death. Already, Three Pools, one of our favorite areas, a 70s hippie idyll downstream on the Little North Fork was already being overrun (it’s hopeless now, with a 90-car parking lot and other facilities, but no moss!). Failing to come to any agreement, we went to bed.

The next morning, we got up and George was up before us. He was hyped-up. He had written out a To Do List for us…on the who, what and when of building the trail. At the top was for he, me and our pal Jerry Rust, the “hippie” Lane County Commissioner from the University of Oregon’s District to scout out a route for the trail.

George was like that. A full-on Alpha, Ranger Officer, Vietnam Vet who recognized a good way to get things done was to ally with other Alphas. And, he obviously felt it did not matter where an idea came from; it stood on its own merits. The whole crew was that way. I’ve met and allied with many competent, no BS, entertaining, intellectually-stimulating, good-hearted men and women thru George.

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So, Jerry, George and I spent a day roaming the Opal Creek basin. Bart had already figured out a route off of the Flume Trail near Jawbone, so we started where Bart’s proposed trail came down to the creek. We figured out a two-mile route. I returned a day later and flagged it out – the main obstacle, other than huge fallen trees, was a spectacular canyon of waterfalls we had to figure out how to go up and around.

A week later, a crew of “Bears” built the trail. Julio, John, Martin, Devin, Tom, Bart and I roughed it in and eventually, we cut thru all of those fallen trees. Immediately, it became popular. The Forest Service wasn’t too happy and at one point the District Ranger threatened to arrest George and me for “felony destruction of government property.” To which George stuck out his hands as if to be hand-cuffed and answered, “Oh, please do. You want to road and log in there and we’re the ones destroying cuz people started following a bear trail to see what you plan? I can’t wait for the show trial.”

This was the same District Ranger, Dave Alexander, who was on record vowing “to cut Opal Creek.” He was a 6’8″ Texas bully. He cut more board feet of forests than any other individual Forest Service Ranger/Supervisor ever and was proud of it. But he wasn’t stupid, so the threatened arrests never came.

Building the trail turned out to be a great decision and a great collaboration. Since then, dozens of people, maybe hundreds, have helped maintain and improve the trail. The Forest Service embraced it and built a couple new bridges to replace primitive ones we put in that wore out. Recently the District’s recreation ranger found a way to vastly improve it by relocating part of it.

As the effort to save Opal Creek got more and more heated up, whenever we’d testify at a Hearing, etc., Big Timber always accused George and me of “just wanting to save their own private playground.” Turned out it was the opposite: now over 20,000 visitors a year visit Opal Creek. Parts of it are on the verge of being loved to death. We mourn those losses. But it’s many magnitudes better than all those roads and clear-cuts/plantations. It’s one of the lowest, intact Ancient Forest ecosystems extant. With this many visitors, people just have to be more careful of the place.

Sadly, Bart Smith died that winter from Diabetes, at the young age of 22. He did not live to see it; but, the legacy of the trail is the Opal Creek Wilderness and Recreation Area. It is an Oregon/American treasure.

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MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com

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