Wilderness designation clears key opposition

Following months of negotiations with conservation activists, the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry coalition, has dropped its opposition to increasing protection for thousands of acres of federal forestlands in the lower Rogue River watershed.

The Portland-based AFRC wasn't too keen on the proposed Wild and Scenic Rivers designation in the original 2008 legislation because it would have protected 143 miles of tributary streams. It also would have set a precedent by doubling the size of logging buffers to a half-mile on each side of the stream on affected U.S. Bureau of Land Management forestlands, said Tom Partin, AFRC president.

The compromise proposal protects about 58,000 acres through wilderness designation, a reduction of some 13,000 acres from the original, while cutting the Wild & Scenic Rivers protection to 93 miles of tributaries and reducing stream buffers, he said.

"This keeps the wilderness attributes on land that probably would have never been managed (for timber harvest)," Partin said. "It took less matrix acreage (harvestable timberland) out, a few less river miles and the buffer widths were reduced.

"It's something that makes sense — we won't oppose this," he added.

The proposed wilderness area would be just upstream from the Wild Rogue Wilderness in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. It would include an area now known as the Zane Grey roadless area on land managed by the BLM's Medford District.

AFRC's decision not to oppose the proposal, which is aimed at protecting the valuable salmon and steelhead fishery, should give the legislation more traction when it is reintroduced later this year, said Sean Stevens, spokesman for Portland-based Oregon Wild, which led the negotiations with AFRC.

The group had originally hoped to include wilderness protection in the bill, but that would not have passed muster with former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican, Stevens said. Smith's successor, Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, expressed support for additional protection on the lower river during his campaign in 2008.

"Wilderness is the gold standard for public lands protection," Stevens said, adding that Oregon Wild enthusiastically supports that proposed designation. He said Oregon Wild would rather work with other special interest groups than battle them in court.

"No one wants to solve these land management issues through lawsuits," he said. "Any time you have a special place like the wild Rogue and find agreement on an issue, you have to move forward on it."

Joseph Vaile, campaign manager for Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and a negotiator in the discussions, agreed.

"Since I've started spending more time with AFRC, I've been trying to better understand their concerns," he said, "and they are trying to understand where we are coming from.

"I think they (AFRC) realized it would never be a place for them to get timber," he added. "It's a place for recreation, a place for Oregonians and people all over the world to come to recreate and fish."

Partin said his group would rather sit down with conservationists to discuss a proposal early on than meet them in court.

"We would like to get involved in these wilderness proposals at the development stage," he said. "But it seems like we always get dragged into it at the 11th hour.

"On this particular one, we were able to sit down and develop something we could agree on," he added.

The Rogue River was one of the first rivers in the nation protected by the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. A decade later, Congress created the Wild Rogue Wilderness.

About 15,000 people float the lower Rogue between May 15 and Oct. 15, when permits are required to limit the number of people on the river at any one time.

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

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