A homegrown movement to protect the clear waters and wild rivers of Oregon's Kalmiopsis & Wild Rivers Coast

The Kalmiopsis — fire, science and conservation

Knowing the Kalmiopsis and its rivers

The Kalmiopsis and its large adjacent, roadless areas are above all providers of exceptionally clean clear water and pristine habitat for native salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout. Long ago they served as a climate refuge and we believe will again. They’re also legendary for their rare and endemic plants and their steep rugged terrain.

Unfortunately few know them for their extremely high scientific, ecological and social values and those who know and love their rivers, rarely understand that the rivers are a reflection of the integrity and uniqueness of the land they flow through.  We want to help the public better understand this ancient, rugged wild area in all its mystery and complexity.

North Fork Smith River Watershed
Over 70% of the watershed of the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River in Oregon was within the Biscuit Fire perimeter. In 2017 the State of Oregon designated the North Fork Smith, its tributaries and associated wetlands Oregon’s first Outstanding Resource Waters under the Clean Water Act. Northwest Rafting Co. Photo.

Mixed severity fire in a unique and complex landscape

Jack Ward Thomas is credited with saying that an ecosystem is not only more complex than we think, its more complex than we can think.

The fire history of the Kalmiopsis is often knowingly described by the unknowing or those who bend the facts to fit political agendas. Increasingly, scientific research, specific to this one-of-a-kind wild land, is helping us better understand its complex mixed-severity fire regime. 

But we need to put this important emerging science into context, including the fact that the 2002 Biscuit Fire was, in part, a natural weather and terrain driven fire, but that also a significant number of acres—some say as much as half—were burned in unnatural U.S. Forest Service set fires designed to deliberately blacken the landscape between the actual fire and the predetermined fire lines.

This was especially true in the almost 1/3 of the Biscuit fire area that is serpentine terrain. Here, because of the naturally sparse vegetation (aka low fuel loading), the agency could blacken the landscape without risking another catastrophic escaped burnout fires, like that which grew into the huge Florence fire. The Florence fire was one of the original five fires that began in the summer of 2002 and became eventually know as simply the Biscuit fire. 

The relevance today can be seen in the fact that the Kalmiopsis serpentines checked, and in some cases stopped, the Chetco Bar fire’s eastward advance. By looking holistically at the Kalmiopsis and its roadless areas, we hope a more informed discussion will develop around fire in this most rugged of wild areas.

The convergence: fire, science and conservation

We are also losing the history of attempts to conserve this unique corner of Oregon and California. We’d like to help preserve this history so we can learn from it.  Here’s a bit about a piece of history that has relevance today. This is because some of what the Forest Service proposed in 2004 as additions to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness (because there was no commercial timber value) is where the 2017 Chetco Bar dramatically slowed and came to a standstill.

It’s also where the 2013 Labrador fire grew to 2,000 acres and then fizzled (with strategic help from the Forest Service), while the Douglas Complex fire, on easily accessed heavily managed private industrial forest land and checkerboard BLM land grew to 48,000 acres. The area of the Labrador fire was mostly on unmanaged roadless lands that had burned during the Biscuit Fire.

2004 | U.S. Forest Service proposes five additions to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness

On July 8, 2004, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman formally proposed that Congress add 64,670 acres of the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

The proposal to Congress included five separate wilderness additions ranging in size from 1,000 to over 34,000 acres. 

The initial announcement, in a Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest June 1, 2004 press release, came as a surprise to the public. This generated considerable stir in the press (scroll down for chronology). The timber industry, who’d obviously been briefed on the proposal, said they were not opposed to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Additions.

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski was pleased that the Bush Administration included a proposed for expansion of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, however, was disappointed that the proposal was not larger. Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Peter DeFazio were pleased also and wanted to discuss the additions to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness with the Governor and Administration (scroll down for chronology.)

Rough and Ready Creek waters are exceptionally clear. It flows out of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and through the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. Barbara Ullian photo
Rough and Ready Creek waters are exceptionally clear. It flows out of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and through the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. Barbara Ullian photo

Approximately 180,000 acres of wilderness available

There’s an estimated 180,000 to 200,000 acres of unprotected wilderness quality land remaining adjacent to 179,755 acre congressionally protected Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The adjacent wild areas are known as North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas. Together they’re the largest National Forest Roadless Area in Oregon. That they remain whole—with their exceptional fisheries and scientific values intact—is the work of major local grassroots led efforts to preserve them.

Rough and Ready Creek is one of five special places in Oregon that Senator Wyden and Representative DeFazio south President Clinton's help in protecting in 1999. Threatened by nickel strip mining it's the only one of the five areas not permanently protected. Barbara Ullian photo.
In 1999, Senator Wyden and Rep. DeFazio sought President Clinton’s help in protecting five special places in Oregon. Threatened by nickel strip, mining Rough and Ready Creek/South Kalmiopsis is the only of the five not permanently protected. Barbara Ullian photo.

Where are the Kalmiopsis Additions now?

So where are we now with the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed Kalmiopsis Wilderness Additions? The Secretary of Agriculture’s 2004 wilderness proposal was intended to blunt opposition to post-fire logging in the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas and in Northwest Forest Plan Late-Successional Reserves, within Biscuit Fire perimeter. It didn’t. However. The Roadless Areas and LSRs were logged and the 64,670 acres of recommended wilderness remains unprotected.

The most threatened of the Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas | nickel strip mining looms

The South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area is the most threatened of the areas that the U.S. Forest Service proposed as additions to Kalmiopsis Wilderness.  In 2007, a foreign owned company quietly filed mining claims across approximately 3,000 acres of the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area in the pristine watersheds of Baldface Creek and the Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River. Now the company, Red Flat Nickel Corporation, wants to develop a nickel laterite strip mine and processing facility there.

Then in 2010, the proponent of the Nicore Nickel Mine in the 1990s located new mining claims in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area , within the Rough and Ready Creek watershed—north of Red Flat Nickel Corporations’s Cleopatra claims.. The mine proponent did this as a hedge after the Nicore (Rough and Ready Creek) claims were found not to be valid.

In 2011, as RNR Resources the Nicore Mine proponent submitted a plan to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest for the RNR Mine Project. The plan includes two nickel strip mines, ore haul roads and a nickel smelter and ore drying facility. Both mine sites and much of the haul roads are in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area and one mine site and miles of haul road are in the proposed South Kalmiopsis Wilderness Addition.

Chronology of the US Forest Service’s 2004 Proposed Kalmiopsis Wilderness Additions

June 1, 2004 – The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest’s June 1, 2004 press release announcing the Biscuit Fire Recovery Project Final Environmental Impact Statement Record of Decision (ROD) also addressed the agency’s proposed Kalmiopsis Wilderness Additions stating:

Acting upon a wilderness proposal recommended by Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, the Forest Supervisor supports consideration of 64,000 acres of lands adjacent to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness for their outstanding wilderness character.

June 1, 2004 On the same day, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski issued his own statement. The Governor, an avid hiker and supporter Wilderness,  spoke about the values of the unprotected wild areas adjacent to the congressionally protected Kalmiopsis Wilderness:

With its incredible biodiversity, roadless character and wildlife habitat, the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the surrounding area is a natural resource jewel – not only to Oregon, but to the nation. 

While the Governor and the Rogue River-Siskiyou Forest were in accord about the importance of the area and the need to designate additional Wilderness, they did not agree on the extent of the 2004 Proposed Kalmiopsis Wilderness Additions. Governor Kulongoski wrote:

I am pleased that the FEIS reflects my proposal that the lands adjacent to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness should be added to the wilderness area. However, I am disappointed that the Forest Service has only recommended the inclusion of 64,000 acres of land. The unique character of this area warrants a significantly larger addition.

According to his spokeswoman, Mary Ellen Glenn, Governor Kulongoski was looking for something more in the 100,000 to 130,000 acre range.

In 2009, Governor Kulongoski wrote to Oregon Senator Wyden about 9 areas in Oregon ripe for Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River designation. One of those was the Kalmiopsis Wildlands. Read the Governor’s letter.

June 2, 2004 – The Oregonian quotes Peter DeFazio as saying that,

… he’d be willing to sit down and talk with the Bush administration about permanently protecting the ecologically distinct Siskiyou National Forest.[2]

June 4, 2004 – The Associated Press reported that even the timber industry was not opposed to the Forest Service’s 2004 Proposed Kalmiopsis Additions. According to Tom Partin, President of the American Forest Resources Council, the were not that concerned with the wilderness proposal,

“because a lot of that is unsuitable for timber anyway.”[3]

June 10, 2004 – While disappointed in the size of the Forest Service proposal, elected officials still expressed support for adding to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.. Senator Wyden, in a June 10, 2004 letter to the editor of the Oregonian, wrote:

I was very pleased with regard to the Bush administration’s surprise support for wilderness in the Kalmiopsis. I plan to work with our congressional delegation, Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the White House in the days ahead to bring needed additional wilderness to Mount Hood and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

The Oregonian quotes Peter DeFazio as saying that,

… he’d be willing to sit down and talk with the Bush administration about permanently protecting the ecologically distinct Siskiyou National Forest.[2]

July 8, 2004 – On July 8th, Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman, announced the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2004 Proposed Kalmiopsis Wilderness Additions with a press release stating:

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman today announced a proposal to Congress to designate more than 64,000 additional acres as wilderness in Southwest Oregon to continue to protect natural resources and wildlife habitat. The acreage is in five remote and largely roadless parcels, ranging in size from 1,000 to 34,000 acres, some of which were partially burned during the 2002 Biscuit Fire. The lands are adjacent to the existing Kalmiopsis Wilderness on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forests. “These lands have been noted for their outstanding wilderness characteristics for many years and there has been long-standing public interest in providing greater protections in this area,” said Veneman. “The Bush Administration is pleased to move this important proposal forward and will begin work with Congress this session to provide this designation.”

September 13, 2004 – According to the September 13, 2004 Congressional Record, Senator Gordon Smith submitted an amendment (S.A. 3622) to his bill S. 2709 (to provide for reforestation in areas of the 2002 Biscuit Fire). Section 6 of the amendment sought to prevent judicial review of the Forest Service’s decision for post-fire logging in Late-Successional Reserves in the wake of the fire. In an attempt to sweeten the deal, Section 7 of Senator Smith’s amendment included the establishment as Wilderness of the US Forest Service’s 2004 Proposed Kalmiopsis Wilderness Addition. Click here to read the text of S.A. 3622.

Learn more about the Biscuit fire and push to log the North and South Kalmiopsis

Between 2003 and 2005, journalist Kathie Durbine wrote a revealing series of articles for High Country News about the Bush Administration’s press to log the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas. See especially “Unsalvageable.” In it she quotes Rich Fairbanks, the Forest Service’s Interdisciplinary Team Leader for the Biscuit Fire Environmental Impact Statement:

Fairbanks, the planning team leader, was pulled off the Biscuit project as soon as the environmental impact statement was done. He retired on April 15, deeply discouraged, and firmly convinced his agency had sacrificed good land-management practices and solid science. What’s even more disturbing, he said, is that Conroy and the Bush administration appeared to be motivated not by a desire to restore the forests, or even to help local mills, but by an anti-environmental agenda.

“They don’t care about the (timber) volume,” he said. “They want to get into the roadless areas. They want to poke environmentalists in the eye.”

  • High Country News – September 1, 2003, “In fire’s aftermath, salvage logging makes a comeback:Bush administration pushes to cut trees burned by Oregon’s Biscuit Fire, science be damned,” by Kathie Durbine.
  • High Country News – December 22, 2003, “Massive logging plan shakes NorthwestOne of the largest timber sales in history uncovers old animosity, and undermines the Roadless Rule,” by Kathie Durbine,
  • High Country News – May 16, 2005, “UnsalvageableWith environmentalists fuming, logging companies grousing, and timber rotting, the Bush administration tries to save face — and a sliver of its grand plans to log the Northwest’s forest sanctuaries,” by Kathie Durbine.
  • High Country News – May 16, 2005, “The wisdom of the ground troops,” by Paul Larmer.


[1] Oregonian, June 2, 2004, “Wilderness proposal came as a surprise.” Note the Oregonian archives are not online.
[2] Id. 

[3] Associated Press, June 3 , 2004 “Proposed wilderness expansion covers hard-fought ground