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Wilderness area backed by Senate committee

Creation of a 13,700-acre wilderness in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest's Elk River drainage near Port Orford edged closer to becoming reality on Wednesday.

The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the Copper-Salmon Wilderness Act which establishes the wilderness and protects the short river famous for its rich salmon and steelhead populations.

Approval by the committee means the bill introduced last September by committee member U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., will now be among some 60 other land measures to be included in a huge public lands bill expected to be debated by the full Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., plans to bring the bill to the Senate floor soon, according to The Associated Press.

"Once we get some of these other Senate bills moving, we think the Copper-Salmon will move forward," observed Mike Beagle of Eagle Point, field coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Oregon and Washington. The conservation group has been pushing for creation of the wilderness.

"This is a real positive step," he added. "But it's a step-by-step process — you have to be patient."

Beagle, who noted that Port Orford residents and hunting and fishing groups have supported the measure for years, acknowledged the presidential race might sidetrack Congress.

"The congressional staffers call it the 'crazy season,' and that is a bit of a concern," he said. "But I think it's going to move this year."

As evidence of its widespread support, he cited the bill's bipartisan support. U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., has cosponsored the legislation and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, also supports it. The wilderness would be in Oregon's 4th Congressional District represented by DeFazio.

In his support for the wilderness proposal, Wyden noted the widespread support which includes the Port Orford Chamber of Commerce, the mayor of Port Orford, the Curry County Board of Commissioners, more than 10 fishing and hunting groups and Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

"As Oregon's population grows, I believe that we must match this growth and the corresponding development with protection of our natural heritage," Wyden said in a prepared statement submitted to the committee on Wednesday.

"Protection of these areas will ensure that Oregonians and visitors will continue to enjoy opportunities to hike in the wilderness, hunt healthy populations of elk, black tail deer, black bear, mountain lion and to catch trophy-sized chinook and steelhead," he added.

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.

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

"Protecting this place protects a huge economic resource for Port Orford and all of southern Oregon," Beagle said. "If this bill becomes law, we will have succeeded in protecting a very special place for our children and our grandchildren."

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