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

Protecting Oregon's National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River

Oregon’s first Outstanding Resources Waters

When most people think of the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River, they think of its gorgeously clear blue-green water, 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. 

Upstream in Oregon, the lesser known half of the North Fork Smith River takes on a different and even wilder character, along with its own unique ecological importance. Tributaries like Baldface Creek are considered in reference condition and critical for providing high quality low gradient spawning and rearing habitat for the North Fork’s native salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout.

You’ll even find coho salmon in the upstream reaches of tributaries. Stream surveyors say they find fish as far up into the watershed as there’s water, meaning that there’s few high falls or other barriers blocking fish passage.

Preserving the North Fork Smith and the other wild watersheds of the South Kalmiopsis has been the quiet work of Oregonians for decades. The effort has been multifaceted—ranging from monitoring gates to protect the rare the Port Orford cedar that line tributary creeks to opposing strip mine proposals

In most recent struggle over Red Flat Nickel Corporations Cleopatra Mine Project, local communities in Oregon’s Josephine and Curry counties and California’s Del Norte County have come together to protect not only the North Fork Smith’s wild watershed in Oregon but the clean drinking water of thousands of residents downstream in California.

In July 2017, the Oregon designated the North Fork Smith state’s first Outstanding Resource Waters under the Clean Water Act. The designation includes not only the 13 mile reach of the mainstem, which was added to the National Wild and Scenic River System in the 1988 Oregon Omnibus Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but the North Fork Smith’s Oregon tributaries and associated wetlands,

It’s a one of a kind designation, not only in Oregon, but also California and Washington. This watershed based protection of the exceptional water quality of Oregon’s North Fork Smith River began as a citizen’s petition and was accompanied by an extensive public process. But it’s more complicated than this because Oregon’s Clean Water Act rules gives priority for the highest level of to waterbodies that are in protected areas such as National Wild and Scenic Rivers, Wilderness Areas and National Parks.

A little over 88% of the North Fork Smith’s watershed in Oregon lies either within the congressionally protected Kalmiopsis Wilderness or the administratively protected South Kalmiopsis and Packsaddle Roadless Areas. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in 2004 recommended that Congress add 34,000 acres of the South Kalmiopsis to the adjacent Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The recommended wilderness is made up of the the near pristine watersheds of the North and South Forks of Rough and Ready Creek and Baldface Creek.

The former are tributaries to the West Fork Illinois River, a tributary of the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River and the latter is a major tributary to the Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River. Baldface Creek and all its perennial tributaries are also USFS Candidate Wild and Scenic River, with the highest potential classification of “Wild.”

Equally important, at the end of 2016

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.

In the Act, Congress formally closed all of the Smith River’s watershed in California to mining and required strong mining regulations. The resulting surface mining regulations are a model for what should be used across National Forest System lands. However, none of these protections apply to the North Fork Smith’s watershed in Oregon. that lie outside the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. This includes Baldface Creek, a pristine tributary of the North Fork Smith, that’s qualified to become a National Wild and Scenic River in its own right.

Now a foreign-owned mining company wants to develop a nickel laterite mine on a stoney expanse of unprotected wilderness in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area in the pristine headwaters of the North Fork Smith River. Phase II of the Cleopatra Mining Project is a program of confirmation test drilling across the approximately 4,000 acre project area.[1]

 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.

Flowing through, the South Kalmiopsis, a spacious wild area with high wilderness values, where Red Flat Nickel Corporation wants to mine are Baldface Creek, the headwaters of the North Fork of Diamond Creek and Fall Creek. All are tributaries of the North Fork Smith River, which is tributary to the California’s National Wild and Scenic Smith River. The promise of another nickel mine in the Smith River watershed has citizens once again vowing not to rest till the Smith River is fully protected.

Pure waters

California’s iconic Smith River is known for its beautiful clear waters and large salmon and steelhead trout. Of all the river’s tributaries, the North Fork Smith River is considered to have the most outstanding water clarity.[2] The North Fork Smith River provides pure drinking water for the community of Gasquet, California where it joins the Middle Fork Smith. The Smith River downstream is the drinking water source for Crescent CityHiouchi and the Redwood National And State Parks – in other words much of Del Norte County.

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.

In August of 2015, a Washington Post survey ranked every county in the United State on its amenities as a measure of the best and worst places to live. Del Norte County ranked 5th in the nation. The county has the highest percentage of protected public lands in our region—81%. The exceptionally clean waters of the Smith River are an indication the strategy is working.

A rare wild watershed

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.

In Oregon, 88 percent of the North Fork Smith River’s is either Wilderness or Inventoried Roadless Area. The exceptional water quality and near pristine stream habitat of the North Fork Smith and its tributaries is a reflection the of the integrity of their wild watershed, There are few streams like it in the United States.

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.

Classic wilderness whitewater

The North Fork Smith River may be best known for the 14 mile stretch of whitewater between Major Moore’s and Gasquet, California. Outdoor writer, Zach Urness calls it a “wilderness classic.” He writes.

The wildest, most famous and most challenging of the three forks [of the Smith River], this Class IV, 14-mile section slices through a canyon that’s beautiful, remote and strange. Serpentine rock dominates the geology, providing the landscape’s reddish-orange color and creating perfect conditions for one of botany’s oddest plants, the cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica) … Numerous waterfalls tumble down canyon walls, and near the end, there’s a sapphire grotto carved from a bend in the river where you can paddle behind a sheet of dripping water. Read the full article here.

Even more adventurous is starting in Oregon and running the IV+ section of the North Fork Smith from Horse Creek to Major Moore’s.

Kalmiopsis Rivers
The North Fork Smith River runs clean and clear through its near pristine watershed—even during winter storms that turn other rivers muddy. The watershed can get between 100 and 160 inches of annual precipitation. J.R. Weir 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

Learn more about the National Wild and Scenic Smith River

In the media

Special areas and designations

The watershed of the North Fork Smith River includes the following special land designations:

  • Kalmiopsis Wilderness (OR)
  • Smith River Nat’l Recreation Area (CA)
  • North Fork Smith National Wild and Scenic River (OR/CA)
  • Lemingworth Gulch Research Natural Area (OR)
  • N. Fk. Smith Botanical Area (CA)
  • Myrtle Creek Botanical Area (CA)
  • L.E. Horton Botanical Area (CA)
  • Late Successional Forest Reserve (OR/CA)
  • North Fork Smith River Key Watershed (OR/CA)
  • Backcountry Recreation Area (OR)
  • Inventoried South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area (OR)
  • Inventoried North Fork Smith Roadless Area (CA/OR)
  • Inventoried Packsaddle Roadless Area (OR/CA)


[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.