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Congress hits a home run for conservation

If you are hoping to turn on the radio and hear great news coming from Washington, D.C., you might be waiting for a while. But lo and behold, I actually have some great news from our nation's capital!

Two weeks ago, Congress hit a home run for conservation, passing the National Resources Management Act in an impressive 362-62 vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. The act designates over a million acres of wilderness, expands Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, authorizes four additional national monuments and protects nearly 2.4 million acres of public lands from mining interests. It also does a heck of a lot for Oregon. With the passage of the bill, Oregonians are poised to bring river conservation to the next level.

How was such a conservation win possible in this era of sharply divided government and hyper-partisanship? It’s because thousands of people stood up and sought for the protection of natural areas in nearly every state around the country. As a result, there was huge political demand to get something done.

A bill like this is long overdue. While Oregon is known as a green state with environmental awareness, it has been years since Congress passed any significant conservation measures for the state’s natural gems. With only one national park (Crater Lake) and the lowest amount of protected wilderness areas (only 4 percent of the state!), Oregon lags far behind our neighbor California in parks and protected areas.

This bill doesn’t do much for our national parks, but it does help out our rivers and all the critters and humans who rely upon them. The bill adds 250 miles of rivers and streams to the National Wild and Scenic River System in Oregon, protecting many southwest Oregon streams from old-growth logging, mining, dams and other threats. Oregon now has more designated wild and scenic rivers than any state outside of Alaska!

Here are some of the highlights for protections in southwest Oregon:

The Rogue: A portion of the Rogue River — the stretch with dramatic canyons and epic whitewater runs — has been designated “wild and scenic,” but its many tributaries that feed into the Rogue have not. The result is that the wild and scenic Rogue has been left compromised. The bill now provides wild and scenic status for several important streams from Grave Creek downstream to Mule Creek in the Wild Rogue Canyon, including Whiskey, Kelsey, Big Windy, and Mule creeks.

The Chetco: The Chetco River is Brooking’s drinking water source and a world class freshwater salmon run. However, the Chetco has been long sought after for corporate mining. Portions of the upper Chetco are now reclassified as “wild,” thereby removing the threat of mining in this remote stretch of river.

Elk Creek: Upstream from Shady Cove, Elk Creek is a large tributary to the Rogue and one of the most important spawning streams for wild salmon on the upper Rogue. This bill de-authorizes the project that has threatened this stream with dam construction for decades and creates a wild and scenic stretch of river that will help ensure healthy salmon and aquatic habitat into the future.

Elk River: Not to be confused with Elk Creek, the Elk River is a phenomenal coastal salmon river that pours into the Pacific Ocean near Port Orford. It is one of the most productive salmon streams in comparative size anywhere in North America. This bill adds critical protections for tributary streams that feed cool, clean water into the Elk River.

Silver Creek: North Fork Silver Creek a stream that feeds the Illinois River downstream from Cave Junction. This bill protects a stretch of the North Fork of Silver Creek deep in the Siskiyou Mountains.

For more information about the specific protection the bill offers, or to read the bill itself, visit our website at kswild.org.

Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.

Whiskey Creek is a cold water tributary to the to the lower Wild Rogue River will be protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act once President Donald Trump signs the National Resources Management Act into law.