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Oregon's Elk River: Strong and Wild Salmon and Steelhead

A look at the past, present, and future of the remote Elk River.

Oregon's Elk River: Strong and Wild Salmon and Steelhead
The Elk River and its tributaries host some of the healthiest wild salmon runs on the West Coast. Establishing a Salmon Emphasis Area would protect healthy watersheds like this one, while previous legislation on salmon has focused only on recovering stocks after they are already depleted. Photo: Jim Yuskavitch

All good fishing guides have stories to tell, and Mark Kimball, owner of the Steelblue Chameleon Lodge on Oregon's Elk River, tells one of my favorites. In the late 1970s, a few years before he and his wife Helen moved up from California and bought the lodge, Kimball and some buddies were fishing the nearby Sixes River when, as they floated past a rural homestead, heard a voice call out "Here comes a drift boat—get the Winchester!"

Shortly thereafter, someone began firing rounds over their heads. Panicked, Kimball and his companions hit the deck until they drifted out of range, then continued fishing. Shaken by the experience, the group later stopped at the Sixes general store where Mark related the incident to the proprietor—an elderly woman. "Did they hit ya?" she asked gruffly. "No, ma'am," said Mark. "Then what are ya worried about?" came her impatient reply.

In this remote and rugged southwest corner of Oregon, that incident, and the local woman's response, exemplifies the longstanding image of the people who live here—individualists, survivalists, loners, and aging hippies—and there's a bit of truth to the stereotype. 

Deep forests and wild rivers nourished by 150 inches of rain a year characterize this part of Oregon, a long drive from any population centers. Only one forestry road, closed in the winter, punches all the way though the mountains from the coast highway. It's a country where loggers and timber cruisers who work in the woods half believe in Sasquatch.

It's also a place where natural resources figure prominently in the local economy and culture. Salmon stocks, in particular, have sparked an unusual coalition of commercial fishermen, sport anglers, fishing guides, conservationists, business owners, and residents of the small coastal town of Port Orford—a community of about 1,100 people—and the surrounding area who have come together for a long-term, comprehensive campaign to protect the Elk River basin, among the healthiest wild salmon and steelhead strongholds in the region.

What's different about the campaign to protect the Elk's wild fish and the habitat that sustains them is that the local community has taken the broad view and the long view, based on an emerging philosophy for conserving wild fish that is gaining ground in the Pacific Northwest.

The Elk River drains a watershed of about 92 square miles, flowing some 40 miles from its headwaters in the southern Oregon coastal mountains into the Pacific Ocean just north of Port Orford. It has an annual run of about 2,000 wild fall Chinook salmon, about 5,000 to 6,000 hatchery fall Chinook, which are produced at the Elk River Hatchery on the lower river, 1,000 to 2,000 wild winter steelhead, and a remnant run of 100 to 150 wild coastal coho salmon, along with both sea-run and resident cutthroat trout.

Extensive research on the Elk River basin's salmon and habitat by Dr. Kelly Burnett, of the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis, Oregon, has brought its value into sharp focus. For example, 90 percent of the Elk's historical coho salmon habitat is still occupied, along with 83 percent of its historical steelhead habitat, compared to 36 percent and 31 percent, respectively, of other rivers in the southern Oregon and northern California region. It also has half as many road miles in riparian areas.

While local guides, lodges, and campgrounds are busy during the fall and winter when the Elk's Chinook and steelhead runs are on, the river also contributes an exceptionally large number of Chinook salmon to the ocean commercial fishery. And because so much of the watershed remains intact, it is a living laboratory to study wild salmon and steelhead, and the ecological functions on which they depend.

Its upper reaches have absorbed some impacts from logging, which peaked in the '50s and '60s, and the lower river's habitat has been degraded from livestock grazing and some residential development. "But most of the basin is federally owned," said Todd Confer, local district fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The water quality is high and the habitat is in pretty good shape." About three quarters of the basin is within the Rogue River-Siskiyou ­National Forest.

Initial efforts to protect the area go back to the mid-1970s with the push to establish the Grassy Knob Wilderness in the Elk's upper reaches. At that time the U.S. Forest Service was making plans to log the watershed, and local fish biologists were concerned about the impacts on headwater salmon and steelhead spawning streams.

"I saw that if they logged this area it would be trashed," said Jim Rogers, Director of Friends of the Elk, who at the time managed the local Western States Plywood mill. Rogers met with Forest Service officials and tried to talk them out it. "Because I was a timber guy I thought they would listen to me," Rogers recalled. "But they didn't."


That lobbying failure helped kick off a campaign to establish the 17,200-acre Grassy Knob Wilderness, and legislation designating it as such was signed in 1984. But the watershed continued to be at risk, when, in 1995, the "Salvage Rider" was attached to other federal legislation, which opened areas to logging in the West that had been previously off limits because of environmental concerns. That included old-growth forests in the upper Elk River watershed with high-quality salmon habitat. "We knew that we were not home free yet, and pushed for the Copper-Salmon Wilderness," said Rogers.

By 2006, that wilderness campaign was launched to protect another section of the Elk River watershed, spearheaded by Trout Unlimited, which put together a conservation coalition including TU, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Izaak Walton League, Native Fish Society, and the Berkley Conservation Institute. The coalition—called Sportsmen for the Copper-Salmon Wilderness—aimed to preserve a pristine Elk River headwaters forest area of 13,757 acres.

The deal was clinched after Port Orford community leaders sent their Chamber of Commerce president to Washington, D.C. to lobby members of Oregon's Congressional delegation who wanted to see local business support before supporting the bill, which they did. President Obama signed the bill creating the Copper-Salmon Wilderness in 2009. "It was the first sportsmen-led wilderness bill in Oregon history," said Mike Beagle, Trout Unlimited's Pacific Northwest field coordinator.

Now Trout Unlimited, Friends of the Elk, and other members of the community have embarked on a creative, new approach to protect the remaining nearly 28,000 acres of Elk River headwater forests that contain tributary streams with important steelhead and salmon spawning habitat.

"It's been logged sporadically for the last 30 years and doesn't qualify as wilderness," said Rogers. "So we decided to come up with a special designation for it called a Salmon Emphasis Area."

The Elk River Salmon Emphasis Area would be a protective designation created by Congress. Its provisions would include managing 27,780 acres as backcountry, with some logging allowed in second-growth areas—but old-growth forests would be off limits. 

"What we are saying is that you can cut in the plantations that were previously logged," said Jerry Becker, executive director of the Elk River Land Trust, who, like Rogers, is also a forester. "We don't want them cutting in the native old-growth forests."

In addition, a little more than 22 miles of headwater streams would receive federal Wild and Scenic Status (currently 28.2 miles of the Elk River main stem has been designated a Wild and Scenic River) and a culvert blocking access to spawning habitat on one of the Elk's tributaries would be fixed. The entire Elk River Salmon Emphasis Area would also include the two existing wilderness areas for a total acreage of about 59,000. 

The watershed is currently covered by the Northwest Forest Plan, which was developed under President Bill Clinton in 1994 as a way to break the deadlock between logging and recovering the northern spotted owl and includes provisions for protecting old-growth forests. But it remains a controversial plan, and conservationists recognize that the habitat protection it now provides could someday be a victim of contentious forest management politics.

"The Northwest Forest Plan is great, but it's not permanent," explained Beagle. "What we'd like to do is designate the area as a place where salmon get the nod. We want to keep this country intact."

The effort to keep the Elk River basin and its fish habitat intact takes the approach of identifying healthy salmon habitat areas, determining future threats to the fish, in this case logging and road building, and devising a response to protect it from those future threats. It's a strategy that is gaining favor with fish conservationists in the Pacific Northwest based on an idea conceptualized in the mid-2000s and led by the Oregon-based Wild Salmon Center, called the Salmon Stronghold Initiative.

"A lot of salmon conservation is driven by threatened and endangered species and is focused on restoring watersheds and salmon populations that are in the worst shape," said Mark Trenholm, North American Salmon Stronghold Program Manager for the Wild Salmon Center. "The Salmon Stronghold Initiative is an effort to retain the places that are still healthy and protect the habitat."

There is a tremendous amount of valuable and important fish habitat restoration work being done in the Pacific Northwest to benefit flagging salmon runs and degraded habitat. But there remain watersheds, like the Elk's, that are healthy, which, because they are still in good shape, tend to be ignored by fish restoration groups in favor of areas with more immediate problems. The danger is that these watersheds will almost certainly face future threats that will degrade them and their wild fish populations. Furthermore, the threats are likely to be large—even global—such as climate change, invasive species, increasing water demands for human use, and large-scale human development.

"What we want," says Trenholm, "is to have a way to focus on issues that can't be dealt with at the watershed council level."

The Wild Salmon Center is currently working with natural resources agencies and conservation groups in the Pacific salmon states—California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and Alaska—to identify salmon stronghold areas and potential long-term threats. The process has been completed in California and is in varying stages of progress in the other states. The Elk River watershed is under consideration for official stronghold designation.

Supported by Washington Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell and Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, legislation called the Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act has also been created that would set up a grant program to fund efforts to keep stronghold areas healthy and create a federal policy statement recognizing strongholds as an integral component of Pacific salmon recovery. Unfortunately, after a promising start in 2011, the legislation has become bogged down in Washington, D.C. partisanship and deadlock.

The past success in creating two wilderness areas in the Elk River watershed keyed on the exceptional community support behind protecting salmon and steelhead and their habitat. The designation of an Elk River Salmon Emphasis Area will rise or fall on that factor as well. 

The City of Port Orford is on board with the Salmon Emphasis Area campaign and passed a 2011 resolution in its support. "It wasn't a hard sell in the community because of the value of its fisheries," said Port Orford Mayor Jim Auborn. "Local people are concerned with the environment and sustainability."

Since a Salmon Emphasis Area will require federal legislation, many lobbying trips to Washington, D.C. to pitch the idea to the Oregon Congressional delegation are in the wild fish advocates' future. Before that happens, Beagle wants to do more public outreach within Curry County and its 21,000 or so residents. The more public support, the better the odds of finding sympathetic ears among the politicians.

Despite the tough political climate in Washington, D.C. these days, and the difficulty of passing conservation legislation, Beagle and his fellow Elk River advocates are moving forward with enthusiasm and optimism. "It would be nice," he said, "to have a bill in two years."

Jim Yuskavitch is editor of The Osprey, a publication of the Federation of Fly Fishers that advocates for the conservation of wild salmon and steelhead. He lives in Sisters, Oregon.

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