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

The Kalmiopsis | a wilderness rivers

This partly protected West Coast wild area is named after one of the rarest plants on the planet.[1] However, first and foremost, the Kalmiopsis is a wilderness of rivers like no other. It’s home to the National Wild and Scenic Illinois, Chetco and North Fork Smith Rivers. Each river has nationally outstanding water quality, native salmon and steelhead runs, recreation and scenic values. The clarity of their waters is legendary.

The National Wild and Scenic Illinois River flows through the Kalmiopsis in one of the deepest, most remote river canyons in the nation. It’s  one of two rivers in Oregon with strictly native runs of salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout. Northwest Rafting Company photos

Here, as few as 16 miles inland from a spectacular stretch of the Pacific Coast known as the Wild Rivers Coast, lies a tangle of knife edged rivers, craggy peaks, long rounded plateaus and deep river canyons. The Kalmiopsis region as we know it today is  is shaped ancient geology, steep rugged terrain, abundant precipitation, a complex hydrologic regime, and fire. These foundational elements have come together to form a one-of-a-kind river-rich wild land of exceptional scientific, social and ecological value. How it all works remains a mystery as deep as the canyons its rivers flow through.

Madstone Darlingtonia fen in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness at the headwaters of the Chetco River
Where serpentine geology dominates, the Kalmiopsis is stark and desert-like in appearance but it’s filled with surprises like the Madstone Darlingtonia Wetland, a groundwater dependent ecosystem in the headwaters of the Wild and Scenic Chetco River. Slade Sapora photo.

What we do know is that the beautiful  rivers and magical creeks that flow through and out of the Kalmiopsis have maintained an increasingly rare level of integrity and that a river is a reflection of its watershed. So while what makes it all work may remain a mystery, that the Kalmiopsis is a rare refuge of wild rivers and native salmon and steelhead cannot be disputed.

Baldface Creek in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area
Baldface Creek if one of three U.S. Forest Service Eligible Wild and Scenic River in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. It’s also a State of Oregon Outstanding Resource Waters. Photo J.R. Weir.

Drama and mystery

When it.s hot and dry in the interior valleys, the Kalmiopsis can be shrouded in an ocean of fog, with just its highest peaks showing, or it can roast you with 100 plus degree temperatures. It can be too hot to crawl into your sleeping bag as the stars brighten in the dark night sky, and before morning breaks, a soft cool rain will have you scrambling for a tarp to keep from getting drenched.

Precipitation varies from west to east. The North Fork Smith and Rough and Ready Creek watersheds can get up to 160 inches of precipitation annually. One year at Gasquet Mountain—in California at the southern most extent of what can be considered the Kalmiopsis region—244 inches of precipitation was recorded. 

The Kalmiopsis, and the mountainous watershed of the Smith River to the south in the Siskiyous, seem to be moisture magnets. But the precipitation comes mainly in the form of rain. The highest point in the Kalmiopsis is Pearsoll Peak at 5,098 feet.

While Pacific storms, summer fogs and hot dry winds from the interior valleys have a dramatic effect on the ecology of the Kalmiopsis, the predominant elemental influence is the area’s complex and unusual geology.

A job half done

In the half century since the passage of the first Wilderness Act, this quiet, mysterious place has more than proven its worth as watershed to some of the last best free flowing rivers on the West Coast. These rivers provide clean drinking water for downstream communities and treasured salmon and steelhead for the local economies—but it’s a job half done.

Directly adjacent to the protected Kalmiopsis Wilderness are the unprotected North and South Kalmiopsis Inventoried Roadless Areas.[2]

These large Inventoried Roadless Areas are home to five U.S. Forest Service Eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers—Baldface, Rough and Ready, Canyon/Josephine  and Silver and Indigo creeks.[2]

The Kalmiopsis, protected and unprotected, is a wild watershed of inestimable value that’s home some of this nations last best free flowing native salmon and steelhead streams but protecting the whole is a job half done.

A different kind of wilderness

Unlike most Wilderness Areas, the protected and unprotected Kalmiopsis wild lands includes many miles low gradient, pristine spawning and rearing habitat for increasing rare native salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout.

And the rivers of the Kalmiopsis—along with the Elk and Smith, Pistol and Winchuck and Hunter and Redwood Creeks—are all free flowing from their headwaters to the Pacific.

And finally the Wild and Scenic Smith, Chetco, Illinois and Elk rivers, have another unique quality. The percentage of federal public lands in their watersheds is high—ranging from 75% to 83%.

With the exception of the Olympics, there is no other area with similar attributes and the potential to provide refuge for ever shrinking populations of native salmon and steelhead.

Rough and Ready Creek winds its way through the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. The waters of this unique creek, even after intense rain storms, are relatively clean and clear. Photo Barbara Ullian

The Kalmiopsis and Wild Rivers Coast | an irreplaceable refuge for native salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout

Fanning out from the stark rugged nucleus of the Kalmiopsis and its large adjacent Roadless Areas are other smaller Wilderness Areas (Grassy Knob, Copper Salmon and Wild Rogue). Smaller Roadless Areas, from 5,000 to 25,000 acres, form stepping stones across the contiguous block of Siskiyou National Forest and adjacent BLM lands. Together they make up the backcountry of the Wild Rivers Coast 

The rivers of the Kalmiopsis and the spectacular strip of Oregon and California coast—from the Smith in the south to the Elk in the north—are likely the last best hope of holding onto native, sustainable runs of salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout south of the Olympic Peninsula.

Wild watersheds make for clean drinking water

Water is life but it quality is a reflection of the land that it flows through. And so there are many degrees of water quality with the best coming out of unpolluted, undeveloped wild lands.

The rivers of the Kalmiopsis and other Wilderness Areas of the Wild Rivers Coast also provides some of the cleanest clearest drinking water in the nation. In this they provide a valuable service to downstream communities in Southwest Oregon and Northwest California.

Kalmiopsis Wilderness and South and North Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas
Below this stark rugged ridge line, on the east, are the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas and the Wild and Scenic Illinois River. On the west are the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the Wild and Scenic Chetco River. One of the most scenic trails in southwest Oregon runs along this watershed divide to Pearsoll Peak. At 5,098 ft it’s the highest point in the Kalmiopsis wildlands.

A quick history

Efforts to protect the vast wild area of spectacular river— from the Smith River in the south to the Rogue River in the north—began with Bob Marshall, when he was head of the U.S. Forest Service Recreation Management under Theodore Roosevelt from 1937 to 1939. Marshall’s vision for protecting other large wilderness lands came to fruition in, for example, the 1.5 million acre Bob Marshall Wilderness  in Montana.

Since Marshall, wilderness proposals for the extreme corners of Southwest Oregon and Northwest California have been piecemeal and incremental, with much lost along the way. The Kalmiopsis wild area, at the core of Bob Marshals proposal, remains the most intact with the 179,850 aces congressionally protected Kalmiopsis Wilderness, surrounded by approximately 180,000 acres of the South and North Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas.

  • In 1946, the U.S. Forest, under the U-2 regulations established a 78,850 acre Wild Area in the upper Chetco River watershed.
  • While the Wilderness Act was being debated in Congress and the Kalmiopsis Wild Area was administratively protected, a logging contract located several thousand acres of miming claims in the headwaters of the Chetco River and began mineral exploration In 1961, he bulldozed a road in from Onion Camp to Chetco Pass and then down to Slide Creek on the Chetco River. From there he constructed a rough mining track to Taggarts Bar and beyond. The mining and road construction was discovered by a Forest Service pilot who flew the area after it was reported that the Chetco River was running red. The Forest Service
  • Most of the upper Chetco River watershed (76,900) was made part of the original National Wilderness Preservation System in the 1964 Wilderness Act.
  • The Endangered American Wilderness of 1978 added a little over 100,000 acres in two additions the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The include the Wild River Area of what is now the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River (designed in 1986) and the headwaters and part of the Wild River Area the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River (designated in 1988),



[1] The Kalmiopsis Wilderness was named for a diminutive shrub, Kalmiopsis leachiana. It looks like a tiny rhododendron. It’s name rolls off the tongue once you learn how to pronounce it – Kal-me-op-sis. Click here to learn about the discovery of this rare species and more about its rugged Wilderness homes on Michael Kauffman’s Conifer Country website .

[2] The U.S. Forest Service’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule provide some administrative protection for the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas. But the RACR provides little or no protection from mining which is the greatest threat to the South Kalmiopsis and the Wild and Scenic Illinois and North Fork Smith River. In addition, in 2006, under the Bush administration, post fire logging occurred in both the North and South Kalmiopsis. The logging impacted the natural process of regeneration that was well underway.

[3] A U.S. Forest Service Eligible Wild and Scenic River is one where the managing agency has conducted a Wild and Scenic River Eligibility Assessment and the stream has been found to have one or more outstandingly remarkable values and to met the criteria to become part of the National Wild and Scenic River System as per the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act’s criteria.  The USDA-USDI Interagency Guidelines  (47 Fed. Reg. 39454) define an eligible river as one that qualifies for inclusion in the national system through determination that it is free-flowing and with its adjacent land area possesses at least one outstandingly remarkable value.

In 1994, the Siskiyou National Forest completed screening and analysis on a number of streams under its management. After public comment, the Forest Supervisor issues a finding as to the streams outstandingly remarkable values and highest potential classification. The Forest Service’s analysis for Josephine Creek and its tributaries was incomplete at the time. As a result they only found only Canyon Creek, a tributary of Josephine Creek  “eligible.” However, since then rare plant surveys conducted between 2001 and 2003 found that Josephine Creek has the high concentration of serpentine Darlingtonia wetlands in the Klamath-Siskiyou Region, and thus the world.

There’s also new science and USFS analysis that show additional outstanding values for the Rough and Ready Creek stream system

[ ] Baldface Creek’s importance to the North Fork Smith River resulted in a finding that the mainstem creek and all its perennial tributaries were eligible to become Wild and Scenic Rivers with the highest potential classification of “Wild.”

For Silver and Indigo Creeks the agency found the mainstem creeks and all anadromous fish bearing tributaries were Eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers.