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

The Kalmiopsis Wilderness, its unprotected Roadless Areas and Its Wild and Scenic Rivers

While named after the rare and ancient plant that resides within its stark and rugged expanse, first and foremost the Kalmiopsis is a wilderness of rivers. Flowing through the congressionally protected Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the unprotected North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas are the National Wild and Scenic Illinois, Chetco and North Fork Smith rivers,

Five U.S. Forest Service Eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers—Baldface Creek, Rough and Ready Creek, Josephine/Canyon Creeks, Silver Creek and Indigo Creek—are waiting for congressional action. 

The clarity of these nationally outstanding rivers, and their tributary creeks, is legendary. Their native salmon and steelhead runs are world-class. Their scenic and recreation values outstanding and their watersheds are home to one of the highest concentration of rare and endemic plants in North America

However to the casual observer, first impressions of this botanically rich and diverse region may be more of a land recently visited by fire than of rivers and rare plants.There’s no hiding that the Kalmiopsis has been affected by recent wild land fires. What’s less obvious is how the land and its rivers will respond in a warming climate and will it remain a climate refuge as it has for millennia? Equally important will the public act wisely in time to fully preserve it, if for nothing else but its rivers? Join us as we look to history and this ancient and mysterious land and its rivers for answers.

The National Wild and Scenic Illinois River flows through the Kalmiopsis in one of the deepest, most remote river canyons in the nation.  Northwest Rafting Company photo.

The evidence of things not seen

The rugged, often other-worldly place we call the Kalmiopsis occupies about 400,000 acres mostly within Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest, with its southernmost tip crossing into California and the Six Rivers National Forest.  It’s a wild tangle of steep knife-edged ridges, craggy peaks, ancient rounded plateaus and deep boulder-strewn canyons located a little inland from the Pacific Ocean and the beautiful Wild Rivers Coast.

The Kalmiopsis bears the imprint of epic geologic forces, abundant precipitation, and fire. A complex and little understood hydrologic regime helps nourish its creeks and rivers during the droughty summers. Springs in its desert-like serpentine terrain form wetlands of rare and insectivorous plants, lilies and orchids. The wetlands, known locally as Darlingtonia fens, are groundwater dependent ecosystems and one of the North America’s rarest habitats types

Darlingtonia wetland at Rough and Ready Creek
A streamside serpentine Darlingtonia wetland at No Name Creek in the Rough and Ready Creek Botanical Area, South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. Barbara Ullian photo.

How it all works together remains a mystery. What we do know is that its wild rivers and pristine creeks have maintained a level of integrity that’s increasingly rare. We also know that a river is a reflection of its watershed. So that it does work cannot be denied. Here’s just one example.

In 2017, the State of Oregon named the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith, it’s tributaries and associated wetlands Outstanding Resource Waters under the Clean Water Act. The designation is reserved for the highest quality waters in the nation. Eighty-eight percent of North Fork Smith’s watershed is within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the adjacent South Kalmiopsis and Packsaddle Roadless Areas. It was a first such designation for Oregon and for the Pacific Northwest.

North Fork Smith River flows through dramatic serpentine terrain
The serpentine terrain of the Kalmiopsis extends into California in the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River’s watershed. The river is dependent on its headwaters in Oregon that provide exceptional water quality and pristine habitat for salmon and steelhead. Jon Parmentier photo.

Context | the stories that maps can tell

Many years ago before the age of the internet and Google Earth, a good friend of the Kalmiopsis would begin his pitch to editorial boards, decision makers, or anyone who would listen, by taking out a well worn map depicting the National Forests, Roadless Areas and congressionally protected Wilderness Areas of the West.

He would then point to the Kalmiopsis and the Siskiyou National Forest. They stood out like neon as the only large undeveloped area of federal public lands remaining along the Pacific Coast, south of the Olympics. 

Today, we we can tell the same story using Google Earth—albeit not quite so eloquently. There is simply no place like this extreme corner of Southwest Oregon and Northwest California—from the Elk River in the north to the Smith River in the south—where it’s as possible to preserve clean water for communities, wild rivers for the future and irreplaceable native runs of salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout for local economies. And the Kalmiopsis and its rivers are at the heart of this most amazing place.

Google earth - Kalmiopsis Region and its Wild and Scenic Rivers
Above – 2017 Google Earth imagery of the Kalmiopsis Region in Oregon. It shows the Siskiyou National Forest south of the Rogue River, and the mid-section of the Wild Rivers Coast. The thicker light green line is the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The white lines mark the National Wild and Scenic Chetco, Illinois and North Fork Smith rivers. See key for map below. Click here or on the map for larger image.

The Kalmiopsis as seen from 400 miles above Earth

The above image was created using Google Earth, which in turn uses Landsat satellite imagery taken from over 400 miles above the Earth.  The view it provides helps put the Kalmiopsis region in context as never before—showing an expansive geologically unique, stark wild area lying between the Pacific Ocean and the inland valleys of the Rogue and Illinois rivers. See above or click here for a larger image.

There’s little level ground in the Kalmiopsis. It’s lean highly dissected surface—with its porous soils, high rock content and underlying faulted and fractured geology—captures and stores the abundant precipitation that falls mostly as rain in the winter, spring and fall. It’s highest point is Pearsoll Peak at 5,380 feet so it’s highly likely that its complex systems of creeks and rivers are more ground water than snowpack dependent to feed them during the droughty months. 

Click on the map above or here for a larger image. The key below will help read the map:  

  • The 180,000 acre congressionally protected Kalmiopsis Wilderness is outlined in light green.
  • Adjacent to the Wilderness are about 150,000 to 180,000 acres of the unprotected North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas (not delineated on the map).
  • The congressionally protected corridors of the National Wild & Scenic Scenic Illinois, Chetco and North Fork Smith Rivers are outlined in white.
  • The boundaries of the Siskiyou National Forest are in thin darker green lines.
  • The unmistakeable shape of the stark expanse of serpentine terrain that makes the Kalmiopsis and its rivers so unique is plainly visible in this birds eye view. No it’s NOT the Biscuit fire scar. The 2002 fire merely emphasized the geologic oddity that’s a mark of the lands great age and uniqueness. The Kalmiopsis serpentine is a major feature of the Josephine ophiolite, extending into California in the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith watershed within the Smith River National Recreation Area. Its most dramatic expression is in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area and the headwaters of the Wild and Scenic Chetco and North Fork Smith Rivers in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

    The National Wild and Scenic Chetco River in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness has water of exceptional clarity and provides many miles of low gradient pristine habitat for the river’s prized native salmon and steelhead trout. Barbara Ullian photo.
  • Also shown, but not highlighted on the map, are five U.S. Forest Service Eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers—Baldface Creek (tributary of the North Fork Smith), Rough and Ready Creek, Josephine/Canyon creeks and Silver and Indigo creeks (tributaries of the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River). Their watersheds are mostly within the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas.

You can see that the National Forest lands, outside the Wilderness and its Roadless Areas that were impacted by the unsustainable logging of the 1970s and 80s are slowly healing under the direction of the Northwest Forest Plan and its Aquatic Conservation Strategy.

The deep green continuity of the Siskiyou National Forest contrasts with the crazy quilt patchiness of the oft logged, private industrial forests surrounding it. The exception is the Smith River National Recreation Area on the Six Rivers National Forest in California.

The high percentage of National Forest and BLM lands in the watersheds of the Illinois, Chetco and North Fork Smith Rivers (81%, 78%, 99.9% respectively) and the amount of congressionally protected lands helps these rivers sustain populations of native salmon and steelhead in face of climate change and degraded ocean conditions.

The larger context

The Wild River Coast of Oregon and California is home to a one-of-a-kind collection of undammed rivers—from the Elk River in the north to the Smith River in the south. With the single exception of the Rogue River, there’s no high dams blocking salmon and steelhead migration. Each river has a high percentage of congressionally protected Wilderness and other National Forest and BLM lands in their watersheds.

It may just be that the National Forest and BLM lands of this rugged, relatively low elevation mountainous region—so often in the immediate  path of wet Pacific storms—may be one of the last best hopes of preserving native runs of salmon and steelhead into the future and providing clean drinking water for its communities. However, conservation in the region is piecemeal, with California and the Smith River, far ahead of what’s needed in Oregon and what happens in Oregon affects the communities in California and visa versa.

A brief history of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness

The 1964 Wilderness Act and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness

The steep rugged terrain of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in 1989. It shows the rich diversity of forest vegetation created by geology, fire and abundant precipitation. This area was lightly burned or unburned during the Silver and Biscuit fires. First analysis of the Chetco Bar fire, appears to show a somewhat similar pattern with perhaps a little more high severity fire.
Barbara Ullian photo.

The 1964 Wilderness Act protected the most of the headwaters and many miles of pristine low gradient salmon and steelhead habitat in the upper Chetco River basin. However, the wilderness boundaries were drawn to exclude parts of the watershed where there were big ancient trees with the potential to become available for logging in the future.

Inside the Wilderness the terrain is land too steep and rugged for roads, with soil too rocky and skeletal to produce the fiber plantations desired by the timber industry.

The Kalmiopsis Wilderness is not without big trees and some closed canopy forest but the jumble of soil types and the area’s high surface rock content means that once logged, the land could not be reforested—even if you could get the trees out. Thus, the forests of the Kalmiopsis had little or no economic value in the conventional sense and that’s why its Wilderness. But unroaded and unlogged, we are now learning its true value—as watershed to beautiful wild creeks and rivers.

The 1978 Endangered | looking back, looking foward

There was a reason they called it the Endangered American Wilderness Act. Back then it was U.S. Forest Service’s practice to construct roads as far as they could into potential Wilderness, put a timber sale at the end and log their way back, disqualifying the area for future protection. Only 18% of the areas originally protected by the 1964 Wilderness Act were national Forest lands.

One such road on the Siskiyou National Forest was was carved out of the South Kalmiopsis. The disastrous timber sale at its end, in the headwaters of Rough and Ready Creek, looted a pocket of rare old forest of western hemlock, Port Orford cedar, Pacific yewsugar pine and Douglas fir, with an understory of Saddler’s oak and rhododendron, It was clearcut over the objections of scientists.  

Scientists, worried that a unique and unstudied botanical curiosity would be wiped out, persuaded the Forest Service to alter the sale layout slightly, to preserve some of the fascinating  borderline between vegetations of diorite and peridotite. But they could not be persuaded to drop the sale...

From – Hiking the Bigfoot Country: The Wildlands of Northern California and Southern Oregon, the classic trail guide to the Kalmiopsis Wildlands by John Hart.

Rare forest in the South Kalmiopsis
This remnant of the rare forest found in the headwaters of the South Fork of Rough and Ready Creek, survived the 1970s timber sale John Hart writes about  only to be severely burned by the Forest Service as part of their fire suppression efforts during the 2002 Biscuit Fire. Barbara Ullian photo

In the early 1970s, the Kalmiopsis Wildlands was the name John Hart used for the original 79,000 acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness plus what we now know as the North and South Kalmiopsis, Packsaddle and Squaw Mountain Roadless Areas:

The Illinois [River] Country, the Chetco [River] basin, the peridotite borderlands: together make up one of the largest blocks of wild country in Oregon. If there were nothing of interest about it but its emptiness and its size, the Kalmiopsis would still be worth protecting. But we are just beginning to understand the richness that is packed within these mostly undefended borders

Little of that richness is commercial … There is just enough timber in the north, just enough mineral potential in the south, to guarantee that the Kalmiopsis wildland will be roaded and logged and mined right down to its small protected core—unless enough people speak out,

… this is a land of most uncommon worth and charm. It it goes—if we permit its exploitation for the little does of commodities it could yield—there will never be anything quite like it, for us, again.

Decades later the struggle has not let up and people are still speaking out. John Hart and Jim Weaver’s Kalmiopsis Wildlands, includes not only the Kalmiopsis Wilderenss—as expanded in 1978—but also the wilderness lands that were excluded then and remain with high wilderness charter—the North and South Kalmiopsis and smaller nearby roadless areas.

Lost ground | what remains to be done

The Oregon History Project has preserved a rare look back to 1977 and the last legislative effort to preserve the greater Kalmiopsis Wildlands.

Click here or image to the right to read this Oregon Wilderness Coalition newsletter about Rep. Jim Weaver’s efforts—with the support of President Jimmy Carter—to increase Kalmiopsis Wilderness to 280,000 acres.  

In his pre-remembrance of Congressman Jim Weaver, Andy Kerr provides additional detail in the epic 1978 struggle between Weaver and Senator Mark Hatfield over the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Additions. Hatfield won and there’s been no additions to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness since 1978.

The fight to protect the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas continued unabated with the fight over the Bald Mountain Road, Lou Gold’s vigil on Bald Mountain and Silver post-fire logging in the 1980a and a score of roadless area timber sales in early 1990s.

Despite these valiant efforts much ground was lost. According to the 1989 Siskiyou National Forest Plan, the North Kalmiopsis Roadless area went from ~ 113,000 to 88,500 acres, the South Kalmiopsis from 111,000 to 104,500. Smaller surrounding Roadless Areas were also reduced in size by roading and logging.

The Northwest Forest Plan brought some peace to the woods until the Bush Administration and the Biscuit post fire logging timber sales, which among other bad and ugly sales included Mikes Gulch in the South Kalmiopsis and Blackberry in the North Kalmiopsis.

The 2004 U.S. Forest Service proposed additions to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness

The closest the Kalmiopsis has come to being expanded into the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless areas was in 2004 after the Biscuit Fire. While proposing to log thousands of acres of Late Successional Forest Reserves and Inventoried Roadless Area, the U.S.Forest Service also proposed adding 64,000 acres to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. 

However, despite being introduced in Congress by Oregon Senator Gordon Smith (R) it went no where because it had too many strings attached to it. The largest of five proposed additions was the 34,000 acre South Kalmiopsis Wilderness Addition that included the watersheds of three pristine streams, Baldface Creek and the North and South Forks of Rough and Creek.

Reading the land

In the beginning | rocks, rattlesnakes and rare plants

In eyes of the general public and even some in the Forest Service charged with it management, the Kalmiopsis had little to recommend it in the early days. It was considered ordinary forest with a high dose of rocks, rattlesnakes, unforgiving terrain and steep slopes. 

Kalmiopsis leachiana
Kalmiopsis leachiana is a rare paleo endemic shrub found only in the rugged mountains of the Kalmiopsis. Michael Kauffman photo.

But while its essence has remained unchanged public perception of the Kalmiopsis has been begun to shift with a growing appreciation and understanding of its rivers and other values. See for example, this essay about the discovery of Kalmiopsis leachiana, the ancient flowering shrub, for which the Kalmiopsis Wilderness is named by Michael Kauffmann  – Kalmiopsis leachiana | Survivor in a land of extremes.

Kauffmann provides us with one of the best short descriptions of the Kalmiopsis since John Hart. Here’s an excerpt from Survivor in a land of extremes:

This landscape is not only sculpted by precipitation and geological character but by fire as well. The greatest fire in Oregon’s modern history swept through the southwest corner of the state in 2002. It was called the Biscuit Fire and burned nearly 500,000 acres across a landscape that receives significant rainfall but one also exposed to extreme summer heat. The porous nature of the soil compounds the drying and in the summer of 2002, after a dry winter, the forest was ripe for burn. The small amount of intact forest which survived the burn–whether it was luck or slope or a combination–is not composed of large and/or old tree specimens. This evidence suggests to me that frequent fire is a common and complex component of this ecosystem–and has been for several thousand years. This diversity is compounded by these harsh extremes–wet and dry, cold and hot, serpentines, fire or not. All of these conditions create a proliferations of microsite on which diversity thrives.

Conifer saplings are flourishing, shrubs are returning, and the Kalmiopsis leachiana–which many feared may disappear due to the fire–may be expanding its range. At a minimum it is burgeoning where there was burn. Diverse plant growth is re-establishing complex vegetation types that, to my amateur botanist eyes, were often so complex as to be confusing. In and around the Salamander Lake/Dry Butte area I saw associations I had never seen before. For instance, Brewer spruce (Picea breweriana) growing near Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and salal (Gaultheria shallon)–where coastal meets mountains.

The most confounding message sent by this diversity is that it exists because of, rather than in spite of, the harsh conditions fostered here–intuitively it would seem that the extremes would inhibit diversity. However, this is the ancient meeting ground.

The red-rock-forest | adversity and evolution

Between Hart and Kauffmann, was David Rains Wallace, writing about the Klamath Mountain Province in general in The Klamath Knot (published in 1984). Wallace wrote eloquently about what he called the “red rock forest,” found on the four ophiolites of the Province, including the Kalmiopsis Serpentines.

Without warning I emerged into an open expanse of red rock, sparse yellow grass, and small, scattered trees. I might have come to the edge of a clear-cut, but there obviously had never been any trees large enough to log in the sudden opening, which stretched as far as I could see into a deep canyon.

Wallace at first found the stark open serpentine terrain, which defied his ideas of normalcy, hellish and impoverished but comes eventually came to the conclusion that its “a landscape so progressive that it has left animals behind,” and that it’s “dealing with a particularly knotty example of the basic evolutionary problem of turning rock into green growth.” He concludes:

The red-rock-forest inferno may prove more creative in the end than the snow-forest paradise. It is the obdurate physical adversity of things such as peridotite bedrock which often drives life to its most surprising transformations …

Logging Bob Marshall’s vision down to its core

Now decades after John Hart was hiking and writing about the Kalmiopsis, we are learning that in addition to its “emptiness and size” there is exceptional scientific, social and ecological richness to be found in this rugged stark landscape. There is also a growing understanding that it is not only a refuge for rare plants and exceptional diversity but for beautiful rivers, the cleanest and clearest of water and the wildest of native steelhead and cutthroat trout—and yes rattlesnakes and lots of lots of rock. However, despite an increased appreciation, we continue to lose pieces.

The map below shows how much logging has occurred on the Siskiyou National Forest since Bob Marshall envisioned a vast protected wild area like that bearing his name in Idaho.  The good news is that the unprotected wild lands (the North and South Kalmiopsis) adjacent to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness still have much of their integrity intact. But the struggle goes on over mining, roading and logging.

Google Earth image of the Siskiyou National Forest with past timber sales and logging units overlaid. Logging unit data from Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest online GIS information. Click to view larger image (1 MB).

To date we only have 2017 Google Earth imagery (click here for larger view) that predates the Chetco Bar fire. In the few months since the fire cooled, a significant part of the 14,000 acres of private land within the fire’s 191,000 acre perimeter has has been logged. One source estimates this could be as many as 9,500 acres. In addition the U.S. Forest Service is proposing to log an additional 4,000 acres. Much of this is within the Chetco River’s watershed. So this snapshot of past logging is already out of date.

This key will help to read the map:

  • The Kalmiopsis Wilderness is outlined in light green.
  • The watershed of the Wild and Scenic Chetco River is outlined in blue.
  • The red, yellow and orange polygons are timber sale areas within the Siskiyou National Forest.
  • The scars of recent clearcuts on private industrial forest lands are clearly visible, however do not include the new post Chetco Bar fire logging. 
Ancient forest in the headwaters of the Chetco
One of the areas of ancient forest in the headwaters of the Chetco River that was excluded from the Kalmiopsis Wilderenss. It was clearcut logged in 2005 despite its protected Late-Successional Forest Reserve status. The logging robbed the forest of the legacy of thousands of year of evolution and impoverished soils and the future forest. Barbara Ullian photo.

The Kalmiopsis and its rivers | climate change, fire and the future 

Fire has always been an integral part the Kalmiopsis Region but the 2002 Biscuit fire and climate change have scientist pondering what the future will bring. The 2017 Chetco Bar fire will add to the debate but its too soon to tell how.

Kalmiopsis Wilderness fire 1994
Like the 2013 Labrador fire in the North Kalmiopsis Roadless Area, this 1994 fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness simply ran out of fuel. In the foreground you can see how the complex geology of the Kalmiopsis and past fires shape vegetation patterns. Barbara Ullian photo

Most of the 179,000 acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness and a significant amount of the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas were within the 2002 Biscuit fire perimeter. Initially there were five lighting caused fires. One—the Florence fire—became the most problematic but it’s hard to say more because its effects and those of the smaller Biscuit fire were confounded by extensive U.S. Forest Service burnout fires (over 100,000 acres on the eastern perimeter alone).

One cannot hid that the forests and other habitat types of the Wilderness and its Roadless Areas were significantly affected. 

The 2017 Chetco Bar fire began deep in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness on extremely steep slopes above Chetco Bar on the National Wild and Scenic Chetco River. The ignition source was what’s called a hold over fire from a lightning storm in late June. The fire wasn’t detected until July 12th. Rappel crews were on it immediately but asked to evacuated. The steep slopes and lack of an escape route made the fire, even though small, impossible and too dangerous for fire crews to work.

Natural features slowed or stopped the spread of the fire until it became weather driven and moved into the managed forest landscape on August 18th and toward civilization. On August 28th wind directions changed driving the fire to east. Only instead of a heavily forested landscape that included plantations and industrial forest lands, it came up against areas of stark open serpentine terrain that slowed or stopped advance of the fire. 

Read more here about how the placement of fire lines and agency set fires predetermined the size and burn patterns of the Biscuit fire.

See the U.S. Forest Service’s Story Map of the Chetco Bar Fire timeline here.

About 39,000 acres of the 191,000 acre Chetco Bar fire was within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. 


Burned with high severity during the 2002 Biscuit fire, this part of the Kalmiopsis did not burn during the Chetco Bar fire, even though areas adjacent to it did. It’s what scientists are calling a precious forest—natural recovery in the wake of high severity fire that promotes diversity in structure and species richness equal to that of an old growth forest. Karin Leson photo October 2017

Weather in a land of extremes

The Kalmiopsis in the summer can be cool and damp, shrouded in an ocean of fog with just its highest peaks showing, on one day and the next, rivaling the hot and dry of the Rogue and Illinois valleys to its east.

Hikers know the whims of its weather. As the stars brighten in the dark night sky, it can be too hot to crawl into a sleeping bag  but before morning breaks a light rain will have you scrambling for shelter. There are years when the highest ridges are bare of snow in January, and its shirt-sleeve weather, and others with days of cold drenching rains in June where you don’t want to leave your tent.

Most important, hikers need to be aware that the creeks and rivers of the Kalmiopsis can rise unexpectedly, making crossings dangerous or impossible even in July. In July of 2017, it was not possible to safely cross the Chetco River, adding to safety concerns of leaving fire crews in the remote, deep canyons of the Kalmiopsis to work the fire.

Baldface Creek in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area, after days of heavy rain still flowing clear. It’s unprotected watershed is considered in reference condition. J. R. Weir/Sundance Kayak School photo

Precipitation amounts vary from east to west but are generally higher that many surrounding areas. Despite the often desert-like appearances of the serpentine dominated watersheds of the North Fork Smith and Rough and Ready Creek, the Kalmiopsis can get up to 160 inches or more of precipitation annually—mostly in the form of rain.

The low peaks and ridges of the Kalmiopsis, and the mountainous watershed of the Smith River immediately to the south in the Siskiyous, appear to be moisture magnets. They often see some of the highest amounts of winter precipitation along the coast.

During the winter of 1981-82, 240 inches of rain were recorded on Gasquet Mountain, at the southern most extent of the Kalmiopsis region in California.[1] Even during periods of sustained drenching rains and rapid rises in stream flow, the creeks and rivers of the Kalmiopsis remain relatively clear—especially when compared to the muddy runoff of streams flowing through the roaded and logged National Forest lands.

While the area’s complex and unusual geology is the dominant elemental influence, Pacific storms, summer fogs, and hot dry winds from the interior valleys all shape the ecology of the Kalmiopsis and its rivers. In turn weather, geology and terrain influence fire and its dramatic affect on this most rugged and diverse of wildlands.

Looking southwest across the Kalmiopsis Wilderness from Bald Mountain on its northern boundary, The deep canyons of the Kalmiopsis lay hidden under a sea of fog on a hot July day inland. Barbara Ullian photo

The Kalmiopsis Serpentines

Wild azalea blooming in a creek in the Kalmiopsis
In the Kalmiopsis both rocks and rivers bloom. Wild azalea on Whisky Creek, Oregon Mountain Botanical Area. Barbara Ullian photo.

The geology of the Kalmiopsis is dizzyingly complex. But one soil type stands in dramatic contrast to all the rest. Dominating a vast area of the Kalmiopsis is the starkly beautiful serpentine terrain of the Josephine ophiolite—one of four serpentine-dominated areas in the Klamath-Siskiyou Region. It’s muted colors are a dramatic contrast to the deep green of surrounding mixed evergreen forests growing on more normal soil types.

Once you’ve seen a map of this geologic anomaly, it’s shape is unmistakeable—even from space (see above Google Earth image). And no it’s not the Biscuit fire scar as someone with little knowledge of the area began calling it. The 2002 Biscuit fire that burned across the Kalmiopsis simply emphasized the sparse woodlands and barrens of the serpentine soils of this geologic anomaly. It did not create it. That was done many millions of year ago as a result of colliding tectonic plates scraping the basement of the ocean floor onto the surface of the land. 

The serpentine of the Josephine ophiolite is a major influence on the Kalmiopsis and its rivers and part of what makes them so unique. It exerts a strong influences vegetation, fire and the hydrologic regime of the region and is host to one of the highest concentrations of rare and endemic plants in North America.[2] 

In 2017, the serpentine terrain of the Kalmiopsis exerted a major dampening influence in the Chetco Bar fire, stopping or dramatically slowing the advance of the fire even when stoked by winds from the west which in late August drove it east. This can especially be seen at Vulcan Lake, Red Mountain, Pearsoll Peak and Chetco Pass and Whetstone Butte. 

The expression of serpentine terrain across the Kalmiopsis varies but is generally characterized by slow growing trees and shrubs, a high surface rock content and high concentrations of rare and endemic plants. Pictured – Jeffrey pine and native bunch grass at Rough and Ready Creek in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area and Biscuit fire area. Karin Ullian photo.

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.

During the preamble to passage of the Endangered American Wilderness Act in 1978, President Jimmy Carter and Rep. Jim Weaver advocated for a 280,000 acre addition to the original 79,000 Kalmiopsis Wilderness designated in 1964. However, Senator Mark Hatfield cut the area down to 100,000 acres.

Directly adjacent to the protected Kalmiopsis Wilderness are the unprotected North and South Kalmiopsis Inventoried Roadless Areas.[3]

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.[4]

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.


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



Kalmiopsis Wilderness and South and North Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas
Spreading out from Pearsoll Peak are the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas and the watersheds of the Wild and Scenic Chetco and Illinois Rivers. Barbara Ullian photo.

A brief history | working to preserve the greater Kalmiopsis Wildlands

Efforts to protect a vast wild area of spectacular rivers, where Oregon and California meet, began with Bob Marshall. Marshall was head of the U.S. Forest Service Recreation Management under Theodore Roosevelt from 1937 to 1939. His vision of wilderness for the region spanned a rugged wild area within the Siskiyou and Six Rivers National Forests—from the Smith River in the south to Rogue River in the north. It never came to fruition. 

The Kalmiopsis wild area, lies at the core of Bob Marshal’s wilderness vision. It remains fairly intact, with the 179,850 aces congressionally protected Kalmiopsis Wilderness surrounded by about 180,000 acres of the South and North Kalmiopsis and Packsaddle Roadless Areas, along with the Rancheria Creek unroaded area.

However, the first successful effort to protect land in the Kalmiopsis began locally at Rough and Ready Creek with the ladies of the Illinois Valley Garden Club.

The Illinois Valley Garden Club led the effort to establish the 90-acre Rough and Ready Creek State Botanical Wayside.
  • 1938 – A successful campaign begun by Effie Smith and the Illinois Valley Garden Club led to the establishment of the State of Oregon’s Rough and Ready Creek Botanical Wayside. Listen to the story here. Unfortunately the State later reduced the size of the botanical area to 11 acres.
  • 1946 – The U.S. Forest, under the U-2 regulations established the 78,850 acre Kalmiopsis Wild Area in the upper Chetco River watershed.
  • 1961 – 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 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 unauthorized 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 issued a special use permit to the miner requiring the maintenance of the roads to prevent erosion.
  • 1964 – Congress added most of the Kalmiopsis Wild Area (76,900 acres) to the National Wilderness Preservation System in the 1964 Wilderness Act. The Kalmiopsis Wilderenss makes up 44 percent of the watershed of the upper Chetco River. However, ancient primeval  forests and stark serpentine ridges in very headwaters of the Chetco River (the headwaters of Babyfoot and Slide Creeks) remain unprotected.
  • 1978 – The Endangered American Wilderness added a little over 100,000 acres in two additions the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The additions included the Wild River Area of what is now the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River (designated in 1986) and the headwaters and part of the Wild River Area the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River (designated in 1988), President Jimmy Carter and Rep, Jim Weaver supported a 280,000 acre addition to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness but Senator Mark Hatfield opposed it. There have been no additions to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness since.Rough and Ready Creek Fills Bill for Wild River

    1993, U.S. Forest Service finds Rough and Ready Creek eligible to become National Wild and Scenic River. Click here for pdf.
  • 1984 – All Wilderenss Areas designated in the 1964 Wilderness Act are finally closed to mineral entry and the location of new mining claims under the 1872 Mining Law, subject to valid existing rights. The compromise in the 1964 Wilderness Act—leaving original Wilderness Areas open to mining for 20 years—means that there are thousands of acres of federal mining claims in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and two roads where motorized vehicles are being allowed to access the claims. For all practical purposes little or no minerals are produced but cabins are occupied, several full time, as personal private retreats. It begins a long struggle between ne’er do well mining claimants, the U.S. Forest Service and conservationists. 
  • 1984 – Congress adds 50.5 miles of the Illinois River to the National Wild and Scenic River System, from the Forest Boundary to its confluence with the National Wild and Scenic Rogue River.
  • 1988 – Congress adds 44.5 miles of the Chetco River—from its headwaters in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness to the boundary of the Siskiyou National Forest—and 13 miles of the North Fork Smith River—from its headwaters to the California border—to the National Wild and Scenic River System in the Oregon Omnibus Wild and Scenic River Act. This same year, the federal government granted an 1872 Mining Law mineral patent application for three 20-acre federal mining claims on the Little Chetco River deep in the Wilderness. The claimant paid $2.50 per acre to the acquire title to the land, thus establishing the first and only inholding in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
  • 1989 – The 10-year timber sale plan for the Siskiyou National Forest includes 18 timber sales in Inventoried Roadless Areas. Many are located in the North and South Kalmiopsis.

    The fight to save Rough and Ready Creek and the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area from the proposed Nicore Nickel Mine made front pages across the West. Click here to read.
  • 1992 – The Nicore Nickel Mine is proposed in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area at Rough and Ready Creek and an application submitted to purchase over 4,300 acres of the creek’s watershed for $2.50 per acre under the 1872 Mining Law’s patenting provision.
  • 1993 to 1994 – The U.S. Forest Service completes studies finding five streams in the South and North Kalmiopsis Roadless Area eligible to become Wild and Scenic Rivers.
  • 1994 – Most of the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas become Late-Successional Forest Reserves under the Northwest Forest Plan. Programmed timber sales are not allow In LSRs..
  • 1999 – After almost four decades, the struggle over the old Darrell Brown mining road and proposals to develop a large scale gold mine in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness on the Wild and Scenic Chetco River at Taggart’s Bar come to an end.[5] The U.S. Forest Service issues the Nicore Mine Record of Decision for bulk sampling to provide Nicore with time to demonstrate where and how the mined nickel laterite soils will be processed.
  • 2002 – The Florence fire, which became known as the Biscuit fire, burns through most of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. It leaves a mosaic of high, moderate and low severity burned areas typical of the mixed severity fire regime of the Klamath-Siskiyou Region. Parts of the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas are logged along with forests in the headwaters of the Chetco River and the Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area. Learn more here.
  • 2004 – The U.S. Forest Service through the Secretary of Agriculture recommends adding approximately 64,000 acres in five areas to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and Senator Gordon Smith (R OR) introduces the Kalmiopsis Additions as an amendment to Senate Bill 2709 (see above).
  • 2006 – The Bush administration presses forward with two post-fire logging sales in the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas.
  • 2008 – A Washington State real estate developer submits proposals to mine approximately 24 miles of the National Wild and Scenic Chetco River—from three existing claims inside the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, a little downstream of Chetco Bar, to about a mile before the end of the Wild and Scenic River corridor. The Chetco River Protection Act is introduced to withdraw the Scenic and Recreation segments of the river from location and entry under the mining laws of the United States.
  • 2011 – The holder of the last three federal mining claims forfeits them by trying to avoid paying the annual maintenance fee. While the Little Chetco inholding remains, for the first time in the almost a half century since the Kalmiopsis Wilderness was established, it’s free from the intrusion and impacts of mining.
  • 2015 – At the request of the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Interior proposes to withdraw approximately 101,000 acres of mostly National Forest land from the location of new mining claims and the Southwest Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act—to make the withdrawal permanent is introduced in the House and Senate. Both the proposed administrative withdrawal and the legislation are subject to valid existing rights. The proposed Rough and Ready and Baldface Creek Watershed withdrawal area is located in the South Kalmiopsis and makes up about 76,000 of the 101,000 acre Southwestern Oregon Withdrawal Area.
  • 2016 – After three extensive public comment periods, environmental analysis and three local public hearings, the Department of Interior, through Public Land Order No. 7859, formally withdraws (subject to valid existing rights) the 101,021 acres of National Forest and BLM lands, known as the Southwestern Oregon Mineral Withdrawals, for a period of 20-years. Local and national support was overwhelming.
  • 2017 – Early in 2017 the Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act was reintroduced in the 115th Congress. Fire visited the Kalmiopsis Wilderness again. Lightning ignited a small fire above the National Wild and Scenic Chetco River at Chetco Bar in the heart of some of the steepest ground in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The fire remained small for over a month until strong winds and hot dry weather fanned the flames into the heavily managed National Forest lands outside the Wilderness. The Chetco Bar Fire went from being low on the Forest Service’s priority list to the number one priority in the nation. The State of Oregon designated the North Fork Smith River, its tributaries and associated wetlands Outstanding Resource Waters under the Clean Water Act. It’s a first for Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. A Utah based mining and exploration company locates over 4,460 acres of new mining claims in the South Kalmiopsis. Most are outside the Southwest Oregon Mineral Withdrawal areas. The new claims are primarily in the watershed of the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River.
  • 2018 – The Klondike Fire began as one of about 100 or more fires ignited in Southwest Oregon by a July 15th lightning storm. The two initial fire starts that became the Klondike Fire were in the northeast cornier of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness about 3 miles from the end of the Illinois River Road. The road provides recreation access for the Scenic River Area of the Illinois, the residents Oak Flat and the eastern end of the Illinois River Trail. On July 23 the fire jumped the Illinois River downstream of Panther Bar and Oak Flat and moved eventually into managed lands. Aggressive and escaped Forest Service burnout fires added considerably to the size of area burned. Overall, 23% of the Klondike Fire area burned with greater than 75% mortality and 64% burned with low mortality (less than 50%. In November Wilderness Land Trust acquires the Little Chetco River inholding, the only private land in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Red Flat Nickel Corporation asserted they have a valid existing right to mine the claims they located in 2007, in what is now the Southwestern Oregon Withdrawal area, The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest is preparing a Surface Use Determination due for completion in August of 2019. This will determine whether Red Flat Nickel will be able to proceed with proposed test drilling in the Hunter Creek and Pistol River headwaters.
  • 2019 – The Chetco River Protection Act becomes law on March 12, 2019. Peter DeFazio re-introduces the Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act (SOWSPA) in the House on Feb. 6, 2019 as a stand alone bill. On May 1st Senators Wyden and Merkley included the mineral withdrawal provisions of SOWSPA as Section 5 of the Oregon Recreation Enhancement Act. 

More Information about the Kalmiopsis Wildlands


[1] USDA Forest Service, 1983, Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Gasquet Mountain Mining Project. Six Rivers National Forest.

[2] While serpentine environments are globally limited, they’re not unique to southwest Oregon and northwest California. However, of the western North American serpentine complexes, the largest contiguous areas of serpentine are found in our very own Klamath-Siskiyou Mountain Region. The U.S. Forest Service has the most comprehensive online information about the Klamath-Siskiyou Serpentines. It discusses the geology and the rare plant communities that inhabit these amazing landscapes.

[3] The U.S. Forest Service’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule provide some administrative protection for the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas. But the rule 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.

[4] 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.

[5] See Medford Mail Tribune – Old mining claim has big payoff: Government pays millions to protect river and wildlife.