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Environmental groups applaud public lands bill

By huge margins Congress voted Tuesday to protect one of the last and largest old-growth forests in Southern Oregon’s Coast Range, as well as hundreds of miles of wild and scenic rivers, including 140 miles of Rogue River tributaries.

The legislation, fought for by environmental groups, outdoor businesses and elected officials for more than a decade, passed the House 363-62, with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, voting aye. It passed the Senate earlier in February with only eight dissenting votes and is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump.

“It’s pretty remarkable and I feel so thrilled,” said Robyn Janssen, director of Rogue Riverkeeper in Ashland. “The Rogue is only as healthy as the sum of its parts, and this gives protection a quarter of a mile up tributaries ... and offers a lot of well-protected habitat for salmon and steelhead in the headwaters and the forests around them.”

She notes that Oregon’s Senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, have been champions of the legislation, along with a range of area officials and businesses, but over the last decade “Congress has not acted, for whatever reasons. Passage was sudden, because there’s so much bipartisan support for it, which is unheard of these days, but a lot of people had a piece of it.”

Noting the bill has a veto-proof margin, KS Wild Executive Director Joseph Vaile said the law will also permanently protect the upper Chetco and Elk rivers, parts of which are “very threatened by mining proposals.”

The bill protects millions of acres of land around the U.S. and contains a watered-down Oregon Wildlands Act, according to reports by the Oregonian. It is the most sweeping federal conservation bill to pass Congress in over a decade.

“We could not be more excited. It’s a huge win for Southern Oregon,” said Pete Walstrom of Momentum River Expeditions in Ashland. The act is “common-sense and well thought-out protections. It goes beyond aiding the environment and helps create healthy and sustainable jobs and rural economies. ... The Rogue River is a nationally recognized wild river and is one of the central engines of the tourism and recreation economy in Southern Oregon.”

In Oregon, the bill creates the 30,000-acre Devil’s Staircase Wilderness, a remote and scenic wonder tucked in the heart of the Southern Oregon Coast Range. It lies between the Smith and Umpqua rivers, and has many bears, otters and spotted owls. Giant Douglas fir and hemlock trees grow in the thick, often impenetrable landscape.

“It’s a very remote coastal area southwest of Eugene. It’s big deal to save that,” said Vaile. “It makes Oregon the most Wild & Scenic state outside of Alaska. We deserve that distinction, because we’ve saved the most of them.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org. Oregonian reports contributed to this article.

Mail Tribune / Andy AtkinsonView of the Rogue River from the bridge entering Gold Hill.