On the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act, many conservationists are pushing for an expansion of the wilderness surrounding the iconic Rogue River.
Each year, the Rogue River in Southern Oregon welcomes a busy summer season of rafters, kayakers and fishers.
Robyn Janssen, the clean water campaigner with Rogue Riverkeeper, rowed a boat down the river during a recent trip to discuss the wilderness proposal.
"We are just entering in the actual wilderness section of the Wild and Scenic Rogue Wilderness," Janssen said. "A lot of people don’t know that the wilderness starts this far down."
The wilderness area begins about 20 miles into the Wild and Scenic stretch. That’s near Mule Creek Canyon, where the river cuts through deep walls of basalt.
"Wilderness" and "Wild and Scenic." They sound similar and both bring environmental safeguards. But wilderness status brings more extensive protections. For example, tributaries that flow into rivers designated "Wild and Scenic" must be protected a half-mile upstream.
In designated wilderness areas, streams are often protected all the way to the headwaters.
That would mean no new development, no new mining claims, no new oil and gas drilling.
"That is really key to the health and livelihood of the salmon fishery and steelhead fishery we have on the Rogue — which is actually second to the fishery on the Columbia," Janssen said.
Conservation groups say the area’s steep side canyons and few roads have limited efforts to mine and log in the area. But they want to protect the area long-term. The Wild Rogue Wilderness would stretch about 37 miles, from put-in to take-out.
An additional 56,000 wilderness acres would more than double the current size.
For any new wilderness, congressional action is required. And that’s where the momentum has slowed.
Morgan Lindsay is with the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, a conservation group advocating the Rogue Wilderness expansion.
She’s asking Congress to overcome a five-year hiatus on designating new wilderness.
"The last time that wilderness was designated was 2009 with a public lands omnibus bill," she said. "And a similar pathway, we hope, will open up soon for the Wild Rogue."
Oregon’s Democratic Senator Ron Wyden is currently advocating the Rogue Wilderness expansion.
Wyden introduced it four times in the last six years. None of the attempts even saw a Senate vote. His aides say congressional gridlock in recent years has made it especially tough to get any public lands bills passed.
This time, Wyden is trying a different approach. The wilderness expansion has been placed within a larger bill, that also calls for more logging on Oregon’s public forest lands.
Supporters include prominent timber companies and county officials hoping for additional revenue from the timber harvests.
Wyden has described the bill as one that stikes a balance industry and the environment.
"We worked with the best scientists in the Northwest to make these harvests as ecologically friendly as we possibly could," Wyden said in a 2013 press conference. "And we listened to the conservation groups who said we need iron-class protections for clean drinking water and Oregon’s salmon and unique wildlife."
It seems like a possible win-win for Wyden, but some conservation groups are turning away from the larger bill and its promise of more logging.
Wyden’s counterparts in the House passed their own bill in September that addressed Rogue Wilderness and more Oregon logging. But the Obama administration threatened a veto.
So Sen. Wyden’s bill is front-and-center. He’s seeking a vote by the end of the year, even as the level of support from Oregon’s environmental community remains an open question.
When it comes to supporting Wyden’s larger bill — one that advocates more logging – groups like Rogue Riverkeeper and Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands change their tune.
Morgan Lindsay said they hope to work with Senator Wyden to increase public lands protection "but not at the expense of some of Oregon’s greatest legacies."
With few roads and fewer people, the entire Rogue River trip might make you feel like you’re already in wilderness.
But you also see occasional lodges and outfitters who make their living on the draw of the area’s natural beauty and remoteness.
Gena Goodman-Campbell of the Oregon Natural Desert Association addressed the economic impacts of wilderness.
"There’s been a lot of research that has shown the economic benefit of having protected public lands in a community," she said.
Goodman-Campbell added that areas with good access to wilderness often attract families and businesses — and younger generations are more likely to stick around.
"You just have that assurance that it’s going to be there, and stay as it is, and people can keep enjoying it."
Back on the river, the political issues seem far away.
Here, outfitters like Pete Wallstrom, who owns Momentum River Expeditions, spend season after season on the Rogue.
"There's nothing like it in the Pacific Northwest, there’s nothing like it on the East Coast — it’s unique," Wallstrom said.
Wallstrom estimates he’s rowed 800 or 900 guests down the Rogue in the last dozen years.
And he says that everyone responds to the river’s wilderness.
"Wilderness has this intrinsic value to us. I don’t know if it’s in our DNA or what, but you see people when they get on the river it kind of gives them something they’ve been missing in their everyday life," Wallstrom said. "It's huge. You see it every time you bring someone out on the river — this happiness."
With all the whitewater and wildlife on the Rogue, it’s easy to get lost in the experience.
And most of the visitors this summer probably won’t be thinking about the conservation rules in place for this river and its surroundings.