Rogue wilderness: When is enough enough?

I was a Jackson County Commissioner in 1987 when Hank Westbrook stepped forward with a proposal to build an enormous pulp mill on the Rogue River. He tried to reassure us; he'd use shiny new technologies to eliminate that brutal sour-sweet odor, to make the wastewater cleaner than the river itself and to make absolutely sure there could be no accidental spills. He urged us to trust him, sit back and welcome the scores of new jobs he'd create.

To be fair, the proposal didn't get very careful consideration. Early on, a Mail Tribune reporter asked my opinion. I could have said I wanted to ponder all of the technical details before commenting, but what I honestly thought, and said, was that I couldn't imagine a level of theoretical safeguards that could persuade me to site an industrial pulp mill on the banks of the Rogue River. That quote led the next morning's news and the proposal died.

You don't have to be an unreconstructed river rat to appreciate the treasure flowing through our valley, with long stretches of wilderness-grade splendor and at least one feature that's probably unique: a series of robust wild salmon and steelhead runs that anglers can access after a day of working in town, or before an evening of seeing world-class theater or music. The Rogue has anchored southwest Oregon's economy and quality of life since Zane Grey was only a little famous, and that's a long time ago. Our river is an aesthetic, recreational and economic gem whose quality we shouldn't consider risking without an absolutely compelling reason.

That's why a cluster of environmental groups and Oregon businesses have come together to urge the addition of 58,000 acres to the Wild Rogue Wilderness that Congress created in 1978, and to add 98 miles of the Rogue's tributary streams to the 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers system. The area is steep, roadless, mostly conifer forest, and its pristine quality may be the best explanation for the surprisingly rich run of wild salmon and steelhead downstream from so many cities, towns and sewage treatment plants. This undisturbed forest provides natural filtering and shade that keep mountain streams cool, clean and alluring to fish home from the sea. It is this unspoiled habitat, not random chance, that gives us an internationally famous fishery in our backyard.

The BLM is planning to log part of this wilderness. The agency sold about 13.6 million board feet of old-growth timber in two tracts covering almost 750 acres and is planning a third sale on 260 acres.

Bureau staff point out this represents a tiny percentage of the Rogue watershed and the region's primary timber industry spokesman sounds wholly fed up with opposition to the sales.

"We already have millions of acres set aside for wilderness," he says. "When is enough enough?"

He's not the only one asking the question. Although we argue endlessly about what and who's to blame, almost everyone agrees that the federal timber system is broken.

The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, billed as a treaty to end the timber wars, aimed to pull about a billion board feet of logs each year from the Northwest federal forests. Actual harvests haven't come close to that level, and the people who've made a living in the woods, or in businesses that supported logging, are frustrated. More and more Oregon taxpayers, accustomed to a long-standing share of federal timber receipts and now facing choices between higher taxes and gutted local services, aren't real pleased either.

This logjam (sorry) can be relieved without carving new roads and running heavy equipment across the hillsides above Rogue River tributaries. The Rogue Basin has an estimated 1 billion board feet of marketable small-diameter timber (up to 12 inches and occasionally larger) within 1,000 feet of existing roads. Key environmental leaders are ready and in some cases eager to see much of that supply cut and commercially sold.

No, 12-inch logs won't generate as much industry profit as the big old growth that still stands in the proposed Rogue Wilderness expansion. But let's think about this. Where would that profit go? Who would it most benefit?

The people who work in the woods, sawmills and plants that manufacture engineered building materials will thrive longer on a sustained flow of smaller logs than on a short-term flush of large old growth. If we didn't learn that lesson in the 1980s and '90s, we weren't paying attention.

Which is not to say that the economics of the new timber economy are simple. Clearcutting vast tracts of old growth, now that was simple; it was also a spree that we're still paying for in thankless forest management dilemmas. But this isn't one of the harder judgment calls. Let's give the magnificent Rogue the highest possible level of protection and carefully comb through the overcrowded second- and third-growth timber on more accessible terrain to feed a leaner, smarter timber industry. That's when we'll find that enough is enough.

Jeff Golden is the host of Jefferson Public Radio's The Jefferson Exchange and author of the novel Forest Blood (

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