Reaching the Summit

By Erik Fernandez of Portland, Oregon. Erik is the wilderness coordinator for Oregon Wild.

Today marks an historic day for Oregon wilderness. The first major statewide wilderness bill in 25 years passed the US House of Representatives and protects Oregon icons Mount Hood and the Columbia Gorge. The plan also protects the Soda Mountain and Copper Salmon areas in SW Oregon as well as Spring Basin and Badlands in central Oregon. Having worked on this proposal for over six years, it's great to see all the necessary legislative hoops have been jumped through and once the President signs it into law it will be finally, finally, final.

Last week the Senate rolled "Dr. No", Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) by a 77-20 vote. Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Jeff Merkley's leadership helped get it done in the Senate. Today, Congresman Earl Blumenauer and Congressman Peter DeFazio moved the bill through the House with an overwhelming majority of 285 to 140.

As the lead organization working on protecting Oregon wilderness, Oregon Wild is thrilled to see protections for the wildlife habitat, clean drinking water, and recreational opportunities finalized. Wilderness protection for our natural treasures is what makes Oregon a great place to live work and raise a family.

This victory carries with it a large degree of personal fulfillment as well. I started drawing lines on the map for this proposal in 1997 as a volunteer, and we really started pushing for protections for Mount Hood and the Gorge in 2003. I’ve taken hundreds of Oregonians up miles and miles of trail to share with them this special place in our back yard. To forever safeguard these areas for future generations fills me with pride that it is difficult to adequately express.

Still, even with these added protections, which are expected to be finalized by the House and the new President in the coming weeks, Oregon still has a wilderness problem. Currently only 4% of Oregon is protected as wilderness. Compare that to Washington (10%), California (15%)...and even the liberal bastion of Idaho which has protected 8% of the state as wilderness. Needless to say, Oregon is way behind when it comes to protecting our natural treasures. It's very encouraging to see Congress starting to correct this imbalance. Senator Wyden deserves significant credit for his leadership in moving this quickly through the new senate. Congressman Blumenauer has also spent years working on this legislation and played a key role in the development of this plan and its passage.

When momentous legislation is passed, it is always appropriate to look back on what came before and to think seriously about what lies ahead. This bill represents the first major wilderness protection in Oregon since 1984. However, the 202,000 acres preserved in this bill are dwarfed by the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Act that protected 800,000 acres of Oregon's backcountry. And that bill was championed by two Republican Senators and signed by Ronald Reagan!

In looking to the future, a greener Congress and a President searching for change bode well for public lands protection. We should all be excited to work to correct Oregon’s wilderness imbalance (I mean, seriously people, Idaho’s gonna beat us?). Additional wilderness protections in places like the Rogue River, the Siskiyou Wild Rivers and the Umpqua River rise to the top when we think about places in Oregon that should be treasured as Wilderness.

As the winter weather abates and the sun shines this week, maybe take a moment to explore Oregon’s soon-to-be-wilderness areas, and think about future Oregonians doing the same.

Comments

  • Croucier (unverified)
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    This is great news. I think the D's learned a few valuable lessons in the process on how to get around obstructionist Rs in congress. Rolling Coburn is fun, but on a less political level, this is something special. This is a legacy Blumenauer and Wyden can be proud of. Hopefully they'll add to their Wilderness legacy soon - there are a couple of great areas around the mountain that didn't get into this version of the bill, specifically Boulder Lake and the Salmon River keyhole. J

  • mac (unverified)
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    A balanced and articulate perspective on how much has been accomplished and how much we have yet to do. We have a tremendous landscape and a charge to preserve it, not just for ourselves, but for the multitude of species who depend on it. Amazing work by tireless wilderness champions and sympathetic legislators. Thank you for your time, faith, energy.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)
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    Is the misspelling of "summit" supposed to be significant? If not, please fix it.

  • Joe Hill (unverified)
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    All of this is true, and thank you and congratulations are due to all involved, but . . .

    . . . in a larger sense, what fun is it to have a pristine wilderness if you can't empty out magazine after magazine of automatic weapons fire there?

    I mean, this is still America, right?

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    Joel-- Fixed. My error.

  • Idaho River Journeys (unverified)
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    Joe, I would think you would bristle at out of state interests highjacking local concerns! Coburn cannot pretend to have Oregon's interest at heart. Would you feel comfortable going to the mat over a wilderness bill that benefited Tulsa? That is un-American. Money is not speech. Issues are local, and the decision should be local.

  • Joe Hill (unverified)
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    Idaho, apologies for the misunderstanding, and congratulations again on the great victory for all of us. My post above was meant as sarcasm. I share your opinion of Coburn's tactics.

  • RobbyK (unverified)
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    It's important to note that no wilderness was created - just protected.

    Kudos to the entire Oregon delegation for doing the right thing. With less than 4% of the state protected as wilderness, it’s great that folks like Erik and Oregon Wild are working so hard on wilderness protections, but it’s time to start going for bigger and better.

    After all, our big wild places are a major part of what makes our state such an attractive place to be. No one comes to visit the clearcuts. And when was the last time you heard someone say "Let's go to Oklahoma!"?

    Coburn held this up for too long, and seems to relish his role as “bad cop” for the GOP. Since he stands in the way of everyone else, I wonder when everyone else will start standing in his way. Maybe when others start blocking highway money, stimulus funds, and agricultural subsidies directed at Oklahoma, we won’t have to wait 10 more years for the next big popular wilderness bill.

    Thanks again Erik!

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    Thanks for the reminder of the good news. I think Wyden's original proposal was for 240,000 acres just on Mt. Hood. That got significantly watered down, sadly. I've been pushing for Mt. Hood to really get some protection via National Park status. We've got one - WA State's got a couple, California's got even more.

    Then, yesterday, I was reminded of the slaughter going on in our State Forests - that's got to change. Why did we elect all of these D's and not get a change to the OR Dept. of Clear-cutting?

  • Idaho River Journeys (unverified)
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    Cool! High fives all around!

  • Simon Harding (unverified)
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    Let's not all get too excited. The Bull of the Woods Wilderness is inaccessible in large part, or more difficult to access because the trails are choked with blowdown. The Clackamas River Trail, formerly non wilderness, will now be half wilderness. Volunteers keep it clear. They won't be able to keep it clear with crosscut saws. This year alone there have been 100 trees blown down over it. Oregon Wild has done virtually nothing to maintain Oregon trails. They are big on photo ops and short on putting boots on the ground for real work. To say nothing of wilderness trails. The federal government needs to take more responsibility for providing for the maintenance of the wilderness and parks and forests we have already created. I am in favor of more wilderness, but volunteers are relied on exclusively, in some areas, to keep the trails clear. Wilderness designation makes it exceeedingly difficult to clear trail of blowdown. No chainsaw use is allowed. What might take 15 minutes with a chainsaw takes literally hours with crosscut saws.

    Access will be lost. So this is all wonderful, but there are no unicorns prancing. No dolphins jumping, and no rainbows to slide down into the wilderness. We have to walk to see it, and unmaintained trails blocked by blowdown are difficult at best, to use to access wilderness areas.

    What can you do? Grab a shovel or Pulaski. Volunteer. Get saw certified by the Forest Service and work with your local USFS office as a volunteer. And work on our congressional delegation. because without that pressure, now that the photo opportunities are over (or nearly so) they will lose interest. Just as they have in the past.

  • It is me (unverified)
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    Albert - National Parks are great, and a Mt. Hood National Park might be warranted. However it's worth noting that they allow all sorts of development like resorts, roads, rv parks, etc. Wilderness is the strongest possible protection.

    Simon - Different groups have different missions. Groups like Oregon Wild work hard to ensure protection of wild places for current and future generations. They do get their boots dirty. They work on conservation thinning projects and lead hikes so people understand what they are working to save. Other groups like WTA and recreation folks do trail maintenance. Trail maintenance groups shouldn't get criticized for being afraid of a fight and not getting involved in politics or the protection of places, and conservation groups shouldn't be criticized for not grooming trails. It's not their jobs.

    Thank you to groups like Oregon Wild for doing the hard work of protecting the places I love, and thank you to groups that maintain the trails I love. I should do more to support both. Thank you to those who do!

  • Croucier (unverified)
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    Simon - Good for you. You are such a saint. I'm being partially sarcastic here and partially serious. Groups like Oregon Wild do far more to protect these landscapes than your trail clearing. In fact your trail maintenance doesn't do squat to protect wildlife habitat or clean drinking water at all. It does zero to curb climate change. So get off your high horse. Now that you're off, I will say it's great that you and others are doing so much volunteer trail work. People do benefit from your efforts, myself included. J

  • Erik Fernandez (unverified)
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    National Parks are great, but Wilderness is the gold standard. Sadly parks are heading in the direction of being commercialized and disneyfied(sp?).

    As for the trail maintenance and critique of Oregon Wild. It's great that you're doing trail maintenance Simon. The problem isn't that trail maintenance is harder in Wilderness, the problem is that the Forest Service is drastically underfunded and can't afford to take care of trails and campgrounds. Plenty of money if you want to build a destructive ATV trail though.

    I think our efforts are complimentary. You keep doing your great work on trail maintenance(hopefully with increased support from the USFS) and Oregon Wild will keep working to make sure the chainsaws and bulldozers don't destroy our natural treasures. Erik Fernandez Oregon Wild

  • Simon Harding (unverified)
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    I did not mean to imply any feelings of superiority. I apologize for that because my message does come off that way. On the other hand I have a difficult time accepting criticism from folks who hide behind anonymous screen names. Especially when the criticism borders on a personal attack. Anyone who wants to talk this subject over face to face or over the phone can look me up in the phone book. Or email me directly. My contact information is public.

    Erik, we've had this debate before, though you and I have never met in person. And we have (respoectfully I think!) disagreed somewhat. The fact is Oregon Wild has the ability, having a very large audience, to encourage people to get involved in (hiking) access issues. We (all of us) need that involvement. It would do more to save wild areas if folks from Portland were more familiar with them. It would do good for the Gorge if people were less inclined to go there all the time to hike and willing to consider heading the The Bull, or the Clackamas river trail, for instance. Being so large, in my opinion, carries with it a certain level of responsibility. Especially given that I think everyone concedes OW was so instrumental in getting the bill passed. Now that it has passed, let's all do what we can to help care for what has been created.

    It would not demand much of OW to put a shoulder to the wheel. For instance, a trail work page or forum on the OW website. Or simply publishing the names of USFS and BLM people coordinating trail work volunteers. Leading a few hikes adn doing a few trail work projects here and there is a drop in a very large bucket.

    One of the things I like most about doing trail work is seeing the country and working with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and with differing views on all manner of subjects.

    All of us hope the USFS will get more funding. I am not holding my breath. Perhaps it will happen and perhaps it will not. I would love to see the present administration put people to work on what really are literally shovel ready projects in the woods. I suppose we could wait for President Obama to work a miracle for us. But waiting and fretting does nothing for the present situation. As of right now, the Clackamas River Ranger District has no trail crew other than volunteers. This has been so for years. They have one half of one person assigned to trails. And during the trail work season, she gets assigned to fire duty. As of right now, about half of the Clackamas River Trail (roughly) is in newly designated wilderness. In December, it had 100 trees blow down over it. Some, on a 45 degree slope, four feet thick. Those trees will stay there. In the future, half that trail (a nice winter trail, being at low elevation) will be lost to heavy blowdown. As of right now, volunteers presently working the district are not planning to work much if any trail in wilderness this season other than maybe ridgetops in the Bull of the Woods because we are spread way too thin.

    A tree across the trail may not be a hazard to some, but to older folks and little kids a tree over the trail, if big enough and especially if wet and slick, it is a big hazard. And doubly so if it is on a sidehill.

    So, perhaps this is a micro argument in a "macro" forum. but I think this is now a critical issue and the situation is getting worse every year.

    If anyone here wants to lend a hand, let me know. Or call your favorite forest and ask how you go about doing volunteer work.

    And again, I apologize for any hurt feelings or offense.

    And Erik, I am with you on the ATVers. One of the things we do is keep an eye out for them and their damage so we can report it to the USFS. And some folks have been known to leave downed trees in strategic locations to prevent illegal ATV access. Otherwise, trails get trashed.

  • RobbyK (unverified)
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    Thanks for keeping it civil Simon. I echo the comments that came in response to yours. It's crucial that organizations like Oregon Wild are working hard to protect land and water for future generations, and it's nice that others like yourself are doing maintenance on them for current users.

    However, OW isn't a trail maintenance organization. It has thousands of members because it has a mission that resonates with Oregonians and it stays true to that mission. I haven't seen many trail maintenance groups or land trusts stick their necks out on political issues. And maybe that's fine, that's not their mission - even though they could "put a shoulder into the wheel" as you say.

    Also, as I pointed out in my earlier post no wilderness was created -- just protected.

  • Larch Mountain Gate (Open in Summer) (unverified)
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    Simon, I appreciate your candor. It is a complicated issue and people try to paint it too black and white. I have to say, though, bottom line, isn't the lack of access protecting the habitat?

    Personally, I find it very frustrating. I would like to see a coherent policy, which I think you are arguing for.

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