A homegrown movement to protect the pure waters & famed rivers of Southwest Oregon's Kalmiopsis - Wild Rivers Coast Region

Will the North Fork Smith River be Oregon’s first Outstanding Resource Waters?

It’s a favorite of fisheries biologists and a small cadre of intrepid boaters who like their weather wet and their whitewater wild. The National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River and its tributaries tumble out of Southwest Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness and two unprotected adjacent wildlands—the South Kalmiopsis and Packsaddle Roadless Areas. Only a few rough roads penetrate the watershed’s edges, with a handful of historic hiking trails entering its interior.

Baldface Creek
Baldface Creek flows into the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River about 2 miles from the California border. The pristine river and creek provide critical habitat for wild steelhead and cutthroat trout, chinook salmon and coho salmon which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Barbara Ullian photo.

But you don’t need to physically visit the wild rugged home of the North Fork Smith River to enjoy its bounty. It provides clean, clear drinking water for thousands of downstream residents in Del Norte County and to visitors of the Redwood State and National Parks. The wild salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout produced by the North Fork’s pristine tributary creeks and mainstem contribute significantly to the growing clean water/recreation based economies of Southwest Oregon and Northwest California’s Wild Rivers Coast.

These are just some of the reasons why on February 2, 2015 fifteen fishing, boating and river conservation groups sent a letter to the Oregon Environmental Commission and Department of Environmental Quality asking that the North Fork Smith River and its tributaries be designated Oregon’s first Outstanding Resource Waters. The groups represent thousands of citizens in Oregon and California. 

On April 20, 2016, the Environmental Quality Commission (EQC or Commission) granted a citizen petition for rulemaking to designate the North Fork Smith River and its tributaries as Outstanding Resource Waters. The EQC’s approval of the petition, means that Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will initiate a rulemaking process for the designation that will include an opportunity for public comment on the proposed rule language. To find out more about the process click here for DEQ’s webpage for the proposal.

Kalmiopsis Rivers
Even at or near flood stage the North Fork Smith River and its wild watershed provide clean water to downstream communities. J.R. Weir photo

Initial comments } 

During the initial comment period DEQ received 57 comments—52 in support of the designation and 5 in opposition to it. Opponents were the Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Cattleman’s Association, Oregonians for Food and Shelter, Oregon Forest Industries Association and Red Flat Nickel Corporation. The trade organizations’ opposition was puzzling. They have no direct interest in the North Fork Smith River watershed. There are no grazing lands involved. It’s a steep hardscrabble land of rare plants, more surface rock than any place we know of in Oregon, and many miles of beautiful wild creeks and river tucked into steep remote canyons.

No agricultural lands would be affected. The area is entirely National Forest system lands—88% of which is either congressional protected Wilderness or Inventoried Roadless Area. There are no water rights in the watershed and no way to get water to agricultural lands.

There are no commercial timberlands involved. Though the Farm Bureau says the Outstanding Resource Waters designation would impact commercial timber harvest, the record shows that under the Siskiyou National Forest Plan, commercial logging is not allowed in the North Fork Smith River watershed. Most of it is simply not capable of growing trees of commercially harvestable size because of its harsh rocky soils.

North Fork Smith River
The botanically rich serpentine terrain of the South Kalmiopsis Roadless area produces some of the clearest water in the nation, but it’s not agricultural or tree growing land. Barbara Ullian photo

Red Flat Nickel Corporation is the one opponent of the Outstanding Resource Waters designation that does have an interest in the area. They hold 139 federal mining claims in the North Fork Smith River watershed where they want to develop a nickel strip mine called the Cleopatra Project. Most of the claims are in the Baldface Creek sub-watershed. All are in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. The Forest Service’s initial estimate of the mine project area is 3,980 acres.

The U.S. Forest Service has found that both Baldface and all its tributaries qualify for the highest level of protection available under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In other words, the lands surrounding these streams are pristine, their waters are unpolluted and they represent “vestiges of primitive America.” In concert with these findings, the U.S. Forest Service, in 2004, proposed adding the Baldface Creek watershed to the adjacent Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

Red Flat Nickel’s ultimate goal is to turn these high value conservation lands into what would essentially become a private industrial mining zone.  However, local communities that depend on the river for clean water and salmon overwhelmingly oppose the mining. 

Grumpy John, a long time resident of Southwest Oregon, had this general advice for listeners of the Jefferson Exchange recently: “I have a simple rule for you. If creates clean abundant water, then you’re on the right track.” 

The rule to designate the North Fork Smith River, its tributaries and associated wetlands as Outstanding Resource Waters is the right track.

It does not come at the expense of agriculture or the timber industry. No people or cows will go hungry and no timber jobs will be lost because of the designation. And if Red Flat Nickel Corporation can show their mining will indeed comply with the laws of the United States, including 1872 Mining Law, then the mining plan cannot be denied.

What the Outstanding Resource Waters designation will do is help preserve, in perpetuity, pure, clean water and the wild sustainable salmon and steelhead runs that rely on it. These are the most important products of the North Fork Smith River and its tributaries.

 

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