A bill calling for the creation of a 13,700-acre wilderness in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest's Elk River drainage near Port Orford now has bipartisan support.

A bill calling for the creation of a 13,700-acre wilderness in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest's Elk River drainage near Port Orford now has bipartisan support.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., cosponsored the legislation on Thursday, joining two Oregon Democrats, Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio, who introduced the bill this month.

The short stream, whose clear water flows into the Pacific just north of Port Orford, is known as a world-class stream for silvery steelhead and lunker salmon.

In addition to creating the wilderness, the bill would also protect 10 miles of the Elk River with a Wild and Scenic River designation.

Located about 14 miles as the crow flies east of Port Orford, the proposed wilderness is in the Copper Mountain roadless area between the Copper and Salmon mountains and immediately east of the 17,000-acre Grassy Knob Wilderness. That wilderness area was created in 1984 to preserve fish habitat in the Elk River.

"The Copper Salmon proposal has a tremendous level of support from local elected officials, sportsmen and conservationists," Smith said at a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's subcommittee on forests and public lands.

Eagle Point resident Mike Beagle, the Pacific Northwest field coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a conservation group which has been pushing for creation of the wilderness, welcomed Smith's support.

"With Senator Smith signing onto the Copper-Salmon Wilderness bill as a co-sponsor with Sen. Wyden, it once again shows how these two men set aside political differences and work together in the spirit of bi-partisanship for the best of Oregon," Beagle said.

More than 10 fishing and hunting groups as well as the Port Orford Chamber of Commerce, the Port Orford City Council, the Curry County Board of Commissioners and Gov. Ted Kulongoski support the wilderness proposal.

The wilderness would be in Oregon's 4th Congressional District represented by DeFazio.

In testimony Thursday before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources' Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, Port Orford Mayor Jim Auborn said the bill was needed to protect the critical spawning habitat for the Elk River salmon and steelhead.

Fellow Port Orford resident Jim Rogers, who works as a forester, agreed. He also noted there is community-wide support for the legislation.

"This wilderness proposal started from the ground up," Rogers told the subcommittee. "Our rural community is united in support of wilderness for the Copper-Salmon area."

Smith said he was optimistic that a number of questions about the Copper Salmon plan would be resolved, including access to the area by the Coquille Indian Tribe.

"I want to be sure that cultural gathering activities are not impeded by a wilderness designation," Smith said, referring to the tribe.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.