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

Oregon's North Fork Smith River

To protect a river, you have to protect its watershed

Oregonians have been working to protect the remote and wild watershed of the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River for many decades and it shows in the recognition given the river, its tributaries, and in the quality of its waters and its pristine to near-pristine salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout habitat.

Most recently, in July 2017, the State of Oregon designated the North Fork Smith River, its tributaries, and associated wetlands Outstanding Resource Waters. This is the highest level of protection afforded waterbodies in the United States under the Clean Water Act. Oregon’s North Fork Smith River is the only Wild and Scenic River in Oregon, Washington or California designated an Outstanding Resource Waters.

The North Fork Smith River begins in and flows through the southern most extent of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness—Oregon’s third largest congressionally protected Wilderness Area. The Kalmiopsis is home to three National Wild and Scenic Rivers—the Chetco, Illinois and 13 miles of the North Fork Smith. At the Oregon border the North Fork Smith enters California and the Smith River National Recreation.

The Kalmiopsis is watershed to the Wild and Scenic Chetco, Illinois and North Fork Smith Rivers. Adjacent are the North & South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas, with their five U.S. Forest Service candidate Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Eighty-nine percent of the North Fork Smith’s watershed in Oregon is either Wilderness or Inventoried Roadless Area (33 percent and 56 percent respectively). Inventoried Roadless Areas are subject to the U.S. Forest Service’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule .

In 1988, Congress added 13 miles of the North Fork Smith River—from its headwaters to the California border—to the National Wild and Scenic River System. And in 1994, the U.S. Forest Service named Baldface Creek and all its perennial tributaries candidate Wild and Scenic Rivers, with the highest potential classification—Wild.

The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, named The North Fork Smith River in Oregon a Tier 1 Key Watershed and allocated the rest of the watershed—outside of the congressionally reserved areas—to Late-Successional Forest Reserve, where no programed timber harvest is allowed.

A river of contrasts

When most people think of the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River, they think of its clear blue-green waters, stark red rock canyon and famed whitewater as it flows through California’s Smith River National Recreation Area. For example this recent Oregon’s Field Guide segment focuses strictly on the half of the river’s watershed that lies in California, outside the program’s home state. And here’s an excellent guide for the California North Fork Smith ‘s whitewater.

However upstream in Oregon, the lesser known half of the North Fork Smith River watershed takes on a different and wilder character, along with its own unique ecological importance. Islands of ancient forests, including remanent stands of western hemlock are surrounded by the stark serpentine terrain of the Josephine ophiolite.

Here on the on the broad ancient watershed divide watershed divide between Baldface and Rough and Ready Creeks are lodgepole pine stands intermixed with occasional ancient Port Orford cedar, and where there are springs or shallow groundwater, fragrant western azalea.

Professor Emeritus of Biology at Humboldt State University, John Sawyer, believed that the lodgepole pine growing on serpentine here was a different race, having more traits in common with the Rocky Mountain subspecies of lodgepole pine than they do with subspecies found in the Sierra Nevada or coastal areas. The pleasure of puzzling out mysteries like these are reserved for the keenest observers.

More trails than roads

More trails than roads penetrate the North Fork Smith watershed in Oregon. In California a county road runs through it and off highway vehicle use of the  old user created mining tracks is, with whitewater recreation, the management emphasis guiding the future of California’s North Fork Smith in  the Smith River National Recreation Area.

The North Fork Smith is a Northwest Forest Plan Key Watershed where management is focused on protecting its pristine to near-pristine spawning and rearing habitat, outstanding water quality and the reference condition of subwatersheds like Baldface Creek and its tributaries.

The North Fork Smith River in Oregon is the only congressionally protected Wild and Scenic in Oregon, California and Washington afforded the highest level of protection under the Clean Water Act—Outstanding Resource Waters. The designation applies not only the 13 mile long mainstem of the North Fork Smith but to its tributaries and associated wetlands.

About 33 percent of the North Fork Smith’s watershed in Oregon is congressionally protected Wilderness and 55 percent is within the South Kalmiopsis and Packsaddle Roadless Areas, where under the Roadless Area Conservation Rule no new roads can be constructed or reconstructed and no logging is allowed except under rare circumstances. Here the lands wilderness character prevails.

Except for its western edge (where logging prevailed in the past, outside of the Wilderness and Roadless Area, the North Fork Smith watershed is part of a spacious and unique wildland known as the South Kalmiopsis, a subset of the Kalmiopsis Range.

The greater whole | a precious wilderness of rivers

This ancient grouping of peaks, knife-edged ridges and broad rounded peneplains is the most rugged and unusual (some would say strange) of the subranges that make up the greater Klamath Mountain Province (aka, Klamath-Siskiyou Ecoregion) of southwestern Oregon and northwestern California.

The Kalmiopsis is lean and wrinkled with age and the geologic forces that formed it—and are still at work Flowing at the bottom of its deep canyons are a great wealth of wild creeks and rivers with the clearest of waters. Ancient wetlands filled with the rarest of plants dole out precious ground water to streams in the late summer, providing cool refuge to native fishes and other aquatic species.

The 100 to 160 inches of precipitation that can fall here annually feed these  priceless waterbodies, which in turn provide clean drinking water for surrounding communities and native salmon and steelhead for local economies. Both requisites for life are becoming increasing rare, especially elsewhere.

At the heart of the Kalmiopsis is the 179,000 acre congressionally protected Wilderness bearing its name. Adjacent—separated on a map by an administrative boundary but seamlessly connected on the ground—are the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas. They’re the largest unprotected National Forest wildlands in Oregon.

The proximity of this river-rich wildlands to the Pacific Ocean, its free flowing pristine to near-pristine streams and low gradient spawning and rearing habitat should be reason enough to preserve it in its entirety. Much has been done but much is left to do—hopefully not before its too late.

Threatened by nickel mining — again

The North Fork Smith River in California was threatened by the proposed Gasquet Mountain Nickel Mine in the 1980s. California Nickel Corporation’s proposal for a nickel strip mine and acid heap leach processing facility was a major impetus for the Smith River National Recreation Area Act.

 Baldface Creek
Baldface Creek flows into the North Fork Smith River about 2 miles from the California border. It;s pristine and most threatened by the Cleopatra Nickel Mine Project. Barbara Ullian photo.


North Fork Smith River
The Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River near Gasquet, where it provides the community with some of the cleanest drinking water in the nation. Wikimedia Commons P. G. Holbrook.

U. S. Forest Service Recommended South Kalmiopsis Wilderness Addition

The North Fork Smith River originates in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. From its highest point under Chetco Peak it flows through the Wilderness or on its western most edge, then between the South Kalmiopsis and Pack Saddle Roadless Areas and then into California and the North Fork Smith Roadless Area and the Smith River National Recreation Area.

In 2004, the U.S. Forest Service recommended the addition of Baldface Creek’s watershed to the adjacent Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The agency’s proposed South Kalmiopsis Wilderness Addition also included the watershed of the North and South Forks of Rough and Ready Creek.

North Fork Smith River and Kalmiopsis Wilderness
The North Fork Smith River’s headwaters are in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and protected. However, about 30,000 acres of the river’s pristine watershed in Oregon is subject to mining. Nate Wilson photo.

Land of the Tolowas

About 1,100 years ago the Tolowas entered and occupied nearly the entire North Fork Smith Watershed. Read about the Tolowa and the Smith River Rancheria. The tribes are opposed to the nickel mining.

What the Forest Service says

The U.S. Forest Service found the water quality, fisheries and scenic values of the North Fork Smith River in Oregon to be Outstandingly Remarkable. The Agency’s Wild and Scenic River Management Plan for the North Fork states:

“The fisheries value of the North Fork Smith [River] is outstandingly remarkable due to its substantial contribution to the world-class fishery of the greater Smith River watershed. The North Fork Smith provides nearly seven miles of near-pristine steelhead spawning and rearing habitat and is a significant source of the high quality water on which the anadromous fishery of the Smith River depends.”[3]

“The North Fork Smith is known for its outstanding water quality and for its ability to clear quickly following storms. Low turbidity and lack of pollutants contribute to the river’s excellent habitat and high fisheries value … The water quality was determined to be Outstandingly Remarkable value primarily due to its substantial contribution to the river setting and to the overall functioning of the river ecosystem.”[3]

The U.S. Forest Service’s North Fork Smith River Watershed Analysis states:

“Fish habitat in the North Fork of the River watershed is in near-pristine condition and functions to produce high numbers of anadromous fish.”[4]

“The North Fork of the Smith River watershed provides near-pristine spawning and rearing habitat for a highly productive fishery … Fall chinook, Klamath Mountain Province steelhead, anadromous cutthroat trout, resident rainbow and cutthroat trout use the watershed. The watershed appears to be an exceptional producer of anadromous cutthroat trout.[4]

Learn more about the Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River

In the media


[1] The Forest Service’s “project initiation letter” states that the “project area is 3,980 acres. Click here for the letter. Click here to access the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest’s Cleopatra Project project file page.

[2] US Forest Service, 1995, Smith River Ecosystem Analysis, Smith River National Recreation Area and Six Rivers National Forest, October 1995, Version 1.0.

[3] US Forest Service, 2003, North Fork Smith Wild and Scenic River Management Plan, Siskiyou National Forest, March 2003.

[4] US Forest Service, 1995, North Fork Smith River Watershed Analysis, Iteration 1.0, Siskiyou National Forest, Chetco Ranger District.