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Campaign For A New Oregon Wilderness Bedevils Conservationists

Deep within a coastal rainforest, a series of waterfalls known as Devil’s Staircase tumbles haphazardly.

Tucked between the Umpqua and Smith rivers two hours southwest of Eugene, the forest surrounding Devil’s Staircase is studded with red cedars, Douglas firs and western hemlocks.

"It’s an absolutely unique and extraordinary place," said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio. The Devil’s Staircase is in the Democrat’s Southwest Oregon district.

In the spring, water rages down the falls of Wassen Creek, obscuring the smooth stair steps of the stream bed. By late summer, the flow is a trickle, exposing neat, round tubes that the water has drilled into the bedrock. Visitors dip their feet in the crisp, shallow water and clamber onto the steps of Devil's Staircase.

Covering roughly 26,000 acres, the old-growth forests surrounding Devil’s Staircase are virtually unaltered by human activity. Aside from an old, disused road running through the middle, hikers must rely on makeshift paths. According to the Forest Service, maintenance here would be difficult, given the steep terrain and fast-growing vegetation.

"It’s a de facto wilderness already," said Chandra LeGue, Western Oregon field coordinator with Oregon Wild.

LeGue and other advocates recently renewed their campaign, underway for nearly a decade, to turn that de facto designation into an official one.

The Devil's Staircase area is the largest remaining block of old growth on the Oregon Coast. It provides a roaming ground for bears, cougars and elk. And it provides habitat for some of Oregon’s imperiled species, like spotted owls and marbled murrelets.

Nearly a decade ago, a coalition of environmental groups led by Oregon Wild called for policymakers to recognize Devil’s Staircase as an official wilderness. To show off the area’s natural beauty, these groups began leading guided hikes through its lush tangle of trees and undergrowth. It was after one of these trips that DeFazio became one of the area’s biggest advocates.

Last month, DeFazio, who represents Oregon’s 4th Congressional District, sponsored a bill that would designate Devil’s Staircase as an official Wilderness Area. The land is currently owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, but it has yet to receive permanent protection from Congress. It is awaiting action in the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands.

This isn’t the first time DeFazio has tried to protect this wild place. The first proposal came from DeFazio in 2009, with a Senate version being sponsored by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden. Neither bill made it out of committee.

In 2011, DeFazio proposed a nearly identical bill. It never moved forward. Come 2013, the same thing happened. Then in 2015, Wyden and fellow Sen. Jeff Merkley, also an Oregon Democrat, introduced the Wyden-Merkley Oregon Wildlands Act. It would have added over 200,000 acres of wilderness and national recreation areas to the state’s portfolio. Around 30,500 of those acres were on the Oregon Coast Range and would have included the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness Area. That proposal failed, as well.

The bills' lack of success may at first seem confounding. According to LeGue, there isn’t much local opposition to the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness Area. In the earliest proposals, Oregon Wild worked with nearby communities to gauge opposition from timber interests and county governments.

"Honestly, we didn’t find a whole lot of strong opposition," said LeGue. She said there’s not a lot of interest in road-building or logging in that remote, steep stretch of southwestern Oregon. LeGue said the biggest barrier to declaring the area an official wilderness is congressional politics; some lawmakers are ideologically opposed to the creation of public lands.

According to DeFazio, ever since 2011, when Republicans took control of the House, the Natural Resources Committee has been antagonistic toward bills that would expand the nation’s wild lands.

"They basically hate wilderness and they’re hostile to existing public land protections," DeFazio said.

Robert Bishop, House Representative for Utah’s 1st District, is the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and a vocal skeptic of the federal government’s ability to regulate state lands. In a May 2017 opinion column, he likened federal land management to "top-down Soviet-style centralized bureaucracies." Later in the year, he urged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to overturn legislation protecting areas of Southwest Oregon from mining. Bishop's congressional office did not immediately respond to interview requests for this story.

Even if the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness Act of 2018 makes it out of the Subcommittee on Federal Lands, DeFazio doesn’t have high hopes for its fate in the House Natural Resources Committee. Under Bishop’s chairmanship, the bill is likely to be tabled once again. But DeFazio intends to persevere.

"I will absolutely introduce an identical bill in the next Congress," he said.

Watch: The Tree That Built The Northwest

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<p>The Devil's Staircase, a series of cataracts on Wassen Creek in southwest Oregon.</p>

Chandra LeGue/Oregon Wild


The Devil's Staircase, a series of cataracts on Wassen Creek in southwest Oregon.

Joseph Winters