The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill creating the roughly 13,700-acre Copper Salmon Wilderness near Port Orford on Tuesday.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill creating the roughly 13,700-acre Copper Salmon Wilderness near Port Orford on Tuesday.

The Earth Day approval through voice vote would protect the headwaters of the Elk River known for its rich salmon, steelhead and trout habitat.

In addition to protecting the watershed on the western edges of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, the bill would designate more than 11 additional miles of the river as either wild or scenic under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and protect some of the last remaining stands of Port Orford cedar in the drainage.

Introduced by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, the bill now goes to the Senate where a similar bill has been introduced by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.

"Copper Salmon is truly a rare coastal Oregon gem," DeFazio said in a prepared statement. "It is almost entirely intact ancient forest, which supports healthy fish runs and great elk herds, black-tailed deer, bears and other wildlife."

The Senate legislation would protect 13,700 acres while the House version would initially protect 12,000 acres while managing some 1,700 acres of already cut land within the watershed as wilderness, then adding it to the wilderness after a 10-year period.

"We have to iron out some differences but it has bipartisan support," observed Eagle Point area resident Mike Beagle, field coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Oregon and Washington.

The sports-fishing group has been pushing for creation of the wildreness.

"It's unique in terms of a sportsman group leading this effort," said beagle, a Republican. "That's why it has bipartisan support."

However, he also cited years of work by Port Orford residents for promoting the relatively small wilderness proposal to the point where it could become law this year.

"It's exciting to see this moving forward," added Sean Stevens, spokesman for the Portland-based Oregon Wild, a conservation group that supports the effort. "It's a testament to how broadly it is supported."

Noting the boost the Elk River fishery gives to the local economy, supporters of the wilderness proposal include the Port Orford Chamber of Commerce, the mayor of Port Orford, the Curry County Board of Commissioners, more than 10 fishing and hunting groups, local businesses and Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

Located about 14 miles 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.

Oregon State University researchers have concluded the Elk River provides one of the healthiest habitats in the contiguous 48 states for anadromous fish.

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