Monday, September 1, 2014


Red Butte, the namesake of the Red Buttes Wilderness, is only nominally protected. Unfortunately, the entire roadless south slope of the mountain was precluded from the 1984 wilderness designation.

          September 3, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Lyndon B. Johnson signed this landmark conservation bill into law in 1964, creating the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). Initially the NWPS set aside 9.1 million acres of wilderness; however, with the support of the American public, Congress has added over 100 million acres over the past fifty years.
          The Wilderness Act of 1964 states, “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as "wilderness areas," and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character, and for the gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness.”
            Howard Zahniser, former Wilderness Society Executive Director, drafted the bill in 1956 with the intention of protecting the nation’s last remaining wildlands. Sadly, Zahniser died just months before it was signed into law, after drafting sixty-six versions of the bill and working for nearly a decade to ensure its passage. Although he never got to see his amazing and lasting legacy, the American people will benefit for generations to come.
            The NWPS system today includes more than 750 wilderness areas, 109,511,966 acres of protected wilderness, and a wilderness area in all but six U.S. states. Wilderness areas represent the nation’s highest form of land protection, allowing for natural processes to occur while prohibiting mechanization and damaging human activities such as logging, road building, OHV use and new mining claims. The preservation of wilderness areas throughout the country is, in my opinion, the most significant environmental achievement in the modern era. The protection of wilderness has safeguarded our natural legacy by protecting water quality in many of our cherished rivers and waterways, preserving the wild portions of the landscape for wildlife, and buffering intact forests, woodlands, grasslands, deserts and chaparral from the onslaught of industrialized land management.  Although much has been achieved, the preservation of wilderness in the United States is not complete. More areas of wilderness character should be included within the National Wilderness Preservation System, especially those areas that provide connectivity across broad landscapes.

Looking north from the Mount Jefferson Wilderness in the central Oregon Cascades. The Mount Jefferson Wilderness is one of twenty-three wilderness areas designated in the High Cascades that provide connectivity across the state of Oregon, ensuring clean water, quality wildlife habitat, primitive outdoor recreation and a beautiful natural legacy for generations to come. Much has been achieved in the Cascade Mountains, yet more areas must be added to the wilderness preservation system to begin piecing together connectivity between high and low elevation habitats.
             To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the wilderness act this summer, my wife and I hiked the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The Oregon section of the PCT follows the spine of the Cascade Mountains 500 miles from the Columbia River to its intersection with the Siskiyou Mountains near the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument above Ashland, Oregon. The Cascade Mountains provide a north-south connectivity corridor across Oregon, dividing the dry east side of the state from the temperate forests to the west. While hiking the Cascade Crest I was often struck by the connectivity of wilderness habitat that allows for a healthy dispersal of wildlife species throughout the state and beyond. Despite a long history of resource extraction and development on the flanks of the Cascade Range, much of the high country remains an intact connectivity corridor due to the designation of twenty-three different wilderness areas.  New wilderness additions have further enhanced this connectivity in recent years, with additions to the Mt. Hood, Salmon-Huckleberry, Badger Creek, Bull of the Woods, and Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness Areas.
            In contrast, the connectivity provided by the Siskiyou Crest does not benefit from such an extensive network of official wilderness designation or other protected status. Today, only two designated wilderness areas can be found along the spine of the Siskiyou Crest—the Siskiyou Wilderness and the Red Buttes Wilderness—despite the presence of numerous roadless wildlands worthy of wilderness designation. Several of these wilderness-caliber areas could be made into new wilderness, and both the Siskiyou Wilderness and the Red Buttes Wilderness are in desperate need of additions.
           The Red Buttes Wilderness, located at the headwaters of the Applegate River, was designated wilderness in 1984, amid much controversy. Unfortunately, because of politics and pressure from extractive industries at the time, much of the roadless, wild terrain surrounding the Red Buttes was left out of the officially designated wilderness. The Red Buttes Wilderness is on the small side, only encompassing 20,250 acres. Extending from the forested flank of the Middle Fork of the Applegate River, and south to the Siskiyou Crest, the wilderness encompasses the Butte Fork drainage, the headwaters of Carberry Creek’s Steve Fork, and the dark forests of the Right Hand Fork of Sucker Creek.  Although richly endowed with ancient and diverse forests, the region is defined by the rugged summits of the Siskiyou Crest, including the area’s spectacular namesake, Red Butte.

Pictured above is the unprotected Fort Goff watershed in the California portion of the Kangaroo Roadless Area. Some 60,000 acres located above the Klamath River were precluded from wilderness designation in 1984. 

         Large sections of adjacent wilderness were excluded from the Red Buttes in 1984, including miles of ridgeline and large areas of ancient, uncut forest. At the time of wilderness designation, the entire Grayback Range—containing vast tracts of productive forest—was left conveniently unprotected, and was later impacted by Forest Service timber sales such as China Left and Sugarloaf. This area, known as the Oregon portion of the Kangaroo Roadless Area, or the Grayback Range, exists today as a 31,778-acre island of forest, meadow, high peak, and wild mountain stream. Also left unprotected were large portions—some 60,000 acres—of the Kangaroo Roadless Area in California, dropping to the banks of the Klamath River. During the initial push for wilderness designation much of the support for protection came from Southern Oregon, rather than Northern California. In 1984, the California timber industry lobby was able to preclude the entire California portion of the Kangaroo Roadless Area from wilderness protection, ensuring that all forested watersheds draining into the Klamath River would be open and available for logging into the future. To this day the California-Kangaroo remains unprotected and vulnerable to extractive industries. Thirty years after wilderness designation the need for further protection is still warranted, yet will only be possible if local citizens and conservationists organize and advocate for additions to the Red Buttes Wilderness.   
         In this era of seven billion people and climate change, it is more imperative than ever to protect native ecosystems. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act it is time to push for new additions to the Red Buttes Wilderness and further protect the roadless wildlands of the Applegate River watershed.

The forested ridge in the foreground of this photo is located within the unprotected Grayback Range Roadless Area, an area that should have been included in the Red Buttes Wilderness designation in 1984. The large cuts at the center of the photo are part of the China Left Timber Sale, logged despite citizen protest and direct action in the summer of 1997 and 1998. This large timber sale was eventually halted due to a court injunction on behalf of the endangered Coho salmon and Northern spotted owl, but only after much damage was done. A spirited and organized campaign for wilderness designation is needed to ensure that no more wilderness quality landscapes suffer the fate of China Left. Additions to the Red Buttes Wilderness are desperately needed before more land is impacted in ways that preclude them from wilderness designation. The choice is ours: either get proactive now or accept permanent losses to our cherished wildlands.