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Agreement Reached To Protect Devil's Staircase, Other Oregon Wildernesses

<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.

After months of wrangling, congressional negotiators have reached agreement on a bill that would protect several popular scenic areas in Oregon.

The package — which the Senate is expected to vote on next month — contains long-sought protections for several rivers and backcountry regions. It covers parts of the Molalla and Chetco rivers, as well as several Rogue River tributaries. And it covers the Devil’s Staircase, a largely untouched wildland area in a southern Oregon coastal rainforest.

The measure would also allow forest thinning on a current wilderness area near Central Oregon’s Crooked River Ranch to reduce the danger from wildfires.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said the bill contains “very substantial wins for conservation” that he said were long overdue.

Wyden and Rep. Greg Walden, the sole Republican in the Oregon congressional delegation, wrangled for weeks over the provisions in the measure.

Walden wanted the Senate to pass his House-approved bill dealing with the Crooked River Ranch, an upscale development north of Redmond, and he objected to some of the wilderness provisions in the original Senate bill.

“The people in Crooked River Ranch are quite frankly terrified they are going to become the next Paradise, California,” said Walden spokesman Justin Discigil, referring to the Sierra foothills town recently wiped out by wildfire.

Wyden said he also wanted to act to protect the ranch. But he said the matter needed to be paired with the wilderness protections he had long sought.

The provisions were included in a broader public lands bill that would provide wilderness protections for about 1.3 million acres around the country. The bipartisan bill appeared poised for Senate passage on Wednesday, but Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, took procedural steps to block an immediate vote on the measure.

That deep-sixed the bill for now since time is running out on the current congressional session. But Wyden said he was promised a Senate vote next month — and he’s also expecting quick action in the House, where Democrats will then be in control.

“I’m feeling quite upbeat about the prospects for January,” he told OPB.

During the heated negotiations, Wyden said he was forced to drop provisions providing wilderness protection for 100,000 acres in the Rogue River area as well as 30,000 acres in the Molalla River Watershed.

Wyden said Molalla River Watershed protections had to be put off at least temporarily because of budget issues. But Wyden and Walden clashed over the Rogue provisions.

Discigil said Walden was concerned about allowing additional wilderness protections in southern Oregon that could interfere with management efforts aimed at reducing wildfire.

“Greg shares the concerns of the community in southern Oregon,” Discigil said. “After the wildfire season we had in 2018 and 2017 … we should be thinking very carefully about moving ahead with new wilderness provisions.”

Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild, said the Rogue River areas earmarked for wilderness protection don’t pose a wildfire threat since they aren’t near any communities. He chastised Walden for getting involved in a wilderness fight outside his district.

According to Wyden’s office, provisions in the new package include:

Protections for about 120 miles of Rogue River tributaries, 21 miles of the Molalla River south of Portland, 18 miles of Jenny Creek through the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, 21 miles of Wasson and Franklin creeks in the Siuslaw National Forest, and several tributaries of the Elk River.

New protections for southern Oregon’s Chetco River to prevent mining activities.

Wilderness designation for 30,000 acres for the Devil’s Staircase in the southern Oregon Coast Range.

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Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.