BULLDOG ROCK — Deep into the woods, up north of the Boulder Creek Wilderness, a cold, cold creek runs through the ancient Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock of the Bulldog Rock area.
It’s named Big Bend Creek because it makes a wide bend while rushing through a canyon before pouring into Steamboat Creek.
Steamboat Creek is known for the abundance of salmon and steelhead to be found there. The fish from the creek migrate into the North Umpqua, where fly fishing enthusiasts travel from around the state and around the world to fish.
Big Bend Creek is a part of what makes Steamboat and the North Umpqua such prime habitat. At higher elevation Big Bend Creek comes out of the ground at 40 degrees. Even as it enters Steamboat, it’s about 10 to 20 degrees colder as it merges, helping keep the larger creek at a temperature that salmon and steelhead favor.
Upstream, a Forest Service trail winds its way up to the still, glassy Bullpup Lake.
Although this area is considerably west of Crater Lake National Park it’s one of a constellation of backcountry places included in a proposed Crater Lake Wilderness.
The proposed wilderness includes the headwaters of the Umpqua, Rogue, Little Deschutes, Klamath and Willamette Rivers.
It would include the 160,000 acres of Crater Lake National Park, as well as existing wilderness areas like Mount Thielsen, Rogue-Umpqua Divide and Boulder Creek. And it would create a 90-mile wildlife corridor surrounding the Pacific Crest Trail from the Diamond Peak Wilderness to Brown Mountain.
It would take an act of Congress to create such a wilderness. If that happened, 500,000 acres of land would receive the highest level of protection the federal government has to give. Wilderness areas are forever closed to roads, motorized vehicles, logging and other activities that environmentalists seek to block in these wild places.
Supporters say it would keep waterways, animal habitat and ancient forests pristine and boost the local economy through increased recreation businesses.
Opponents say it would increase the risk of wildfires and prevent some popular recreational uses like bicycling and snowmobiling.
As members of the Umpqua Watersheds Crater Lake Wilderness Committee hiked up to Bullpup Lake, they spoke about the reasons why they believe wilderness protection is necessary.
“Everything that’s around them has been logged,” said supporter Susan Applegate of the areas that would be included in the wilderness. “These roadless areas are sanctuaries.”
The forest around Bullpup Lake contains a mixture of trees, fungi and other plants much like what was here when Mount Mazama blew its top 7,700 years ago, creating the Crater Lake that now attracts 700,000 visitors a year.
Hemlocks grow up underneath the canopy of Douglas fir. When the Douglas fir die, the hemlocks take their place. Eventually, the Douglas fir return.
“It’s an ongoing cycle where there is always something coming up under something else,” Applegate said.
Bob Hoehne said yew trees like those that grow here produce a cancer-fighting substance called taxol.
“A lot of people believe and I believe we don’t understand everything that’s here yet. We don’t know everything these ancient forests have to offer,” Hoehne said.
While there is an overlay of various protections on many of the lands in question — scenic rivers, a steelhead sanctuary and the national park, along with administrative protections approved by the Forest Service — wilderness designation would give even the national park a higher degree of protection.
Right now, Applegate said, the park is being managed as if it were wilderness. But the next director might have a very different vision, she said.
Then, too, there are the fish.
A hundred years ago, canneries sat at the mouths of rivers all up and down the Oregon Coast.
Jeff Dose, retired Umpqua National Forest fisheries program manager, said the people of that time looked at the abundant salmon and steelhead and saw nothing but silver gold. The canneries prospered for a few decades but fizzled out due to overfishing.
Dose said there’s little hope the fish will ever be as abundant as they once were. He worked for decades trying to conserve and grow the populations that remain. While fall chinook and winter steelhead have been fairly successful, others are threatened. Summer steelhead, he said, aren’t doing as well as biologists would like.
The cold water coming out of Big Bend Creek allows adult summer steelhead to survive there over the summer-long enough to reproduce.
“Those places are pretty rare,” Dose said.
Wilderness designation would mandate a management plan that could improve the salmon’s chances, he said.
“Wilderness area, that is the highest standard of protection and conservation you can have on public lands, and to me we need as much of that as we can possibly get,” he said.
ECONOMICS OF WILD LANDS
Some business interests support the formation of a Crater Lake Wilderness Area, while others oppose it. The Umpqua Watersheds Wilderness Committee has received endorsements for the proposal from 80 businesses.
But it’s received opposition from the Diamond Lake Resort, which is not in the proposed wilderness but is surrounded by it, and from mountain bikers. Those who enjoy recreating with machines fear they’ll be unable to continue. Wilderness supporters say they hope to work with these groups to address their concerns.
Businesses that could benefit include motels, restaurants and outfitters. Crater Lake Wilderness Campaign Coordinator Robbin Schindele said recreation is a significant growth factor in Oregon’s economy.
Commercial fishing on the Rogue River for salmon and steelhead brings $1.6 million to the local economy, and sport fishing brings $16 million per year, he said.
He said 45 years of data from Headwaters Economics in Montana show that between 1970 and 2015, western counties with more federally protected land had higher employment, incomes and property values than areas with less.
Over that time period, counties in the bottom 25th percentile for federally protected land had 72% employment growth, while those in the top 25th percentile grew 169%. Counties in the bottom 25th percentile for federally protected land had a per capita income increase of 54%, while those in the top 25th increased 73%.
He cited the example of Klamath and Lake counties. Klamath has a great deal of federally protected land, while Lake does not. The difference in per capita income is $6,000, he said.
“What I see is that there’ll be more better-paying jobs, businesses will prosper and people’s land values will increase, that’s the basic story. Protected land is not wasted land,” Schindele said.
Roseburg chiropractor Kiran Kaul is one of the business endorsers of the wilderness proposal. He spends a lot of time hiking, camping and whitewater rafting on the Umpqua and Rogue river systems. He said he’s also traveled around the world enough to see that this place has world-class water that needs to be protected.
“To have a protected waterway where basically we could make sure that these systems stay clean and pristine as they are for as long as possible I think is pretty important to have as far as a legacy for our kids, for ourselves and for the health of the system here, the ecosystem,” he said.
Destabilizing water systems can lead to toxic substances in our bodies, he said.
“Keeping clean water as a privilege as well as a right to the people of this area is I think a pretty critical task,” he said.
FEARS OF FIRE
Perhaps surprisingly, there is one thing that the wilderness supporters and Douglas Timber Operators Director Matt Hill agree upon: It’s unlikely the areas in the proposal, which are mostly in steep, rugged terrain, would be good for logging.
That’s about the only point of agreement though. The wilderness supporters say timber companies want to block the extra protection because they hope it will become economically feasible to log there someday.
Hill said there are no plans to log in these areas. The real threat to these forests isn’t logging, he said. It’s fire, and a wilderness designation would increase the risk.
That’s because of the way wilderness areas are managed, or rather, not managed. Rather than having professional foresters determine whether the undergrowth or burnt stands that could add fuel to wildfire should be removed, the land would be left alone. And since roads wouldn’t be built into the area and machinery isn’t allowed, the ability to fight fires could be compromised, he said.
That, Hill said, would damage the wilderness area itself as well as threaten neighboring timberlands and structures. The proposed wilderness comes within spitting distance of several hundred cabins along Diamond Lake that were nearly evacuated a couple of summers ago, he said.
Wilderness supporters say old growth is less susceptible to fire. One living tree on that hike through Bulldog Rock looked to be about 500 years old, and had burned several times over the centuries.
But Douglas Forest Protective Association spokesman Kyle Reed said old growth does burn. While it’s slower to catch fire than younger trees, old growth fire is harder to fight once it’s started, he said, and lack of management to prevent fire risks ups the hazard.
Hill cites the Boulder Creek Wilderness just south of Bulldog Rock as an example of why he doesn’t favor the wilderness proposal. It’s an area he said has burned, reburned and reburned again.
“I grew up hiking up there with my father and I don’t anticipate taking my children up there for decades because it’s been torched. And that wilderness designation does not allow the forest service to go in after a fire and rehabilitate and accelerate the growth of the forest. It has to come back on its own time, which is a very long time,” he said.
WILL IT HAPPEN?
Only Congress can create wilderness, and so far no bill has been introduced to create this one. Supporters say they met with Sen. Ron Wyden about the proposal last spring and have an upcoming meeting with an aide for Sen. Jeff Merkley’s office.
Only time will tell.
To Hill, the current ability for administrators to change the rules as needed seems like a good thing. To the wilderness supporters it does not. They fear that the existing protections aren’t enough to ensure the pristine waterways, fish habitat, old growth and wild recreation will remain.
Forest management practices on federal lands come and go. Wilderness is forever.