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Why Oregon Needs More Wilderness

Ancient forest grove, Oregon Coast Range. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

In the recent Public Lands legislation that was passed by Congress, Oregon got some new protected landscapes including the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness, 250 miles of new Wild and Scenic River segments on the Rogue and Molalla rivers and measures such as a mining ban on the Chetco River. This legislation was a good but a small step in the right direction.

Not to underestimate the positive effects of the legislation, it’s still important to note that Rep. Greg Walden eviscerated the bill. The original Oregon Wildlands Act included two large National Recreation Areas around the Rogue and Molalla rivers, plus a vital expansion of the Wild Rogue Wilderness. These protective measures were stripped out after objections from Walden.

I’m usually an optimistic person, and generally, see the cup as half full not half empty. However, it’s hard to ignore how Oregon’s leaders have been thinking at the wrong scale. Our elected members of Congress need a bold vision that corrects the stark imbalance of abuses our public lands have suffered over the last century.

Compared to neighboring states, Oregon has fallen behind in efforts to protect its outstanding wildlands. Washington has 10% of its lands designated as wilderness, Idaho is 8%, and California is 15% wilderness. California has more people than any other western state and yet has seen fit to protect nearly a fifth of its land area as wilderness and has nine national parks. Oregon has only managed to preserve 4% of its land as wilderness and has only Crater Lake National Park.

The last time a comprehensive wilderness bill was enacted was in 1984 when the Oregon Wilderness Act protected 828,000 acres and designated 22 new wildernesses including many areas that Oregonians now enjoy like the Bull of the Woods Wilderness, Columbia Wilderness (now Hatfield Wilderness), Waldo Lake Wilderness and North Fork of the John Day Wilderness.  Republican Senator Mark Hatfield championed the bill along with Democrat Rep. Jim Weaver, and it was signed into law by President Reagan.

What we need is new all-encompassing legislation that brings Oregon up to parity with other states. The best way to protect ecological integrity is to designate suitable lands as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Wilderness is the “Gold Standard” for conservation. Wilderness designation preserves water quality and wildlife habitat. And increasingly in a climate heating world, wilderness’s most significant benefit may be keeping carbon in the forest. Intact forest ecosystems can sequester and store vast amounts of carbon for centuries.

Oregon has numerous opportunities to expand its protected landscapes with close to 5 million acres of Forest Service lands that deserve Wilderness protections. At the same time, the Bureau of Land Management has over 6 million acres that qualify as wilderness. This includes stunning landscapes such as the Owyhee Canyonlands, Trout Creek Mountains, several areas along the John Day River, Maiden Peak, Crater Lake Wildlands, North Fork of the Malheur, South Fork of the John Day, Maiden Peak, Hell Hole, Metolius Breaks, Joseph Canyon, among others. Legislation should also expand existing wilderness with additions to Hells Canyon, Opal Creek, Waldo Lake, Kalmiopsis, Wild Rogue, Rogue-Umpqua Divide, and Eagle Cap Wildernesses.

Creation of new national monuments and national parks should also be considered.  The Siskiyou Wild Rivers in southwest Oregon could be a new national monument or park. Likewise, there is a movement to create a Douglas Fir National Monument on the western slope of the Cascades and Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument in eastern Oregon. And for years creation of a Hells Canyon National Park has been advocated by some organizations. All of these lands can have an overlay of wilderness designation as well where they meet the requirements of the Wilderness Act.

Expansion of the Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge to connect to the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada would ensure protection for the migration corridor of pronghorn that move between the two refuges as well as create one of the largest protected areas in the Great Basin.

In areas with livestock grazing, voluntary permit retirement should be an option for all nearly protected landscapes.

The Oregon congressional delegation has an opportunity to protect the unique features that make Oregon such an attractive place to live-which, in turn, has been shown to enhance everyone’s quality of life. I hope that Senators Wyden and Merkley as well as all of Oregon’s Congressional delegation, including Greg Walden, understand that future generations will remember their efforts to preserve what truly makes Oregon unique—its wildlands. Will they step up to the challenge?

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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