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Siskiyou Mountain Range

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Rough and Ready Creek: Worth More than an Unnecessary Dozerline

Along the southwestern Oregon and northwestern California border is an incredibly lonely, starkly beautiful, and spectacularly wild landscape. The area is more reminiscent of the red rock deserts of the American Southwest, than the coastal rainforests and giant redwood groves that grow nearby. Known by geologists as the Josephine Ophiolite, the area is a rusty red mass of ultramafic rock cut by deep, rugged canyons, incredibly clear streams lined in Port Orford-cedar, stunted pine woodlands, chaparral, and broad ridges of coarse red stone that originated in the mantle of the earth. The red rock  found in the area has technical geologic classifications and gradations, including peridotite, serpentinite, dunite and other ultramafic rock types, but they are generally referred to colloquially and collectively as “serpentine” throughout the region.

The region supporting these unusual rock types is a geologic oddity, a botanical wonderland, and home to some of the most stunningly wild streams on the West Coast. Sprawling across the North Fork Smith River, Illinois River, and Chetco River watersheds, the Josephine Ophiolite is famous with botanists looking for rare species, geologists marveling at the area’s geologic history, rafters and kayakers looking for wild, inaccessible whitewater canyons, and backcountry hikers looking for solitude.

Lower Rough and Ready Creek in the Rough and Ready Flats Botanical Area and directly adjacent to new dozerline authorized by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest during the 2023 Smith River Complex.

Yet, among all the beautiful hardscrabble streams in the area, Rough and Ready Creek stands out as the most mysterious and unique. A tributary of the West Fork Illinois River, Rough and Ready Creek flows through rugged red rock canyons on the eastern edge of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and through the heart of the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. As the center for serpentine endemics in the region, Rough and Ready Creek exemplifies the Josephine Ophiolite from top to bottom, with its eerie red rock barrens, Jeffrey pine woodlands, and incredible biodiversity.

As a young backpacker growing up in southwest Oregon, I first visited Rough and Ready Creek in the late 1990s and fell in love with it’s clear, blue pools, boulder strewn stream banks, cobra-lily (Darlingtonia californica) wetlands, intact plant communities, rocky, red ridgelines and contemplative solitude. I still visit the area on a regular basis to enjoy the area’s rare and endemic plant species, diverse wildflower displays and to swim in the clear, emerald pools of the creek. I have explored off-trail along every major drainage and ridge in the watershed and over the years have built a deep appreciation for the wild, otherworldly beauty and complexity of Rough and Ready Creek. It is a place of great meaning to me personally, and a stream that captivates the imagination with its own peculiar, irresistible and unparalleled charm.

Others also revere the area for its intact plant communities, undisturbed serpentine habitats, exceptional water clarity, and spectacular biodiversity. In fact, the watershed contains more rare plant species than any other area in the state of Oregon and is a stronghold for endemic plant species found only on serpentine soils. It also supports a highly unusual and intact serpentine floodplain spreading out across the southern Illinois River Valley in the Rough and Ready Creek ACEC on BLM lands, the Rough and Ready Flats Botanical Area on Forest Service land, and the popular Rough and Ready Creek Botanical Wayside on Highway 199, with its broad boulder strewn floodplain, widely braided stream coarse, and unusual plant species.

The area has also been passionately defended by local residents who love the otherworldly beauty of Rough and Ready Creek. Local efforts successfully opposed and shut down the Nicore Nickle Mine, a massive stripmine, smelter, and processing facility proposed in the 1990s. This proposal would have opened up over 15 miles of long-impassable and revegetated roads in the South Kalmiopsis Inventoried Roadless Area; utilized up to 7 stream crossings; built miles of new road; created up to 4 open pit nickle mines on the ridges above Rough and Ready Creek; built a large ore stockpile on adjacent BLM lands and an on-site processing facility, and potentially polluted this unusually clear stream with mine waste and road runoff.  Under the rally cry, “Worth More Than A Nickle Mine,” residents and environmental activists rallied around the stream’s protection, and finally a failed lawsuit filed by mining proponents stopped this damaging mine proposal from moving forward. In the end, folks thought they had saved Rough and Ready Creek.

Lower Rough and Ready Creek is a broad, clear stream as it rushes through the Rough and Ready Flat Botanical Area and into the West Fork Illinois River.

However, Rough and Ready Creek has never been fully or adequately protected, or added to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness as was recommended by the Forest Service in 2004. Unfortunately, this past summer, the Forest Service built miles of damaging dozerline in the Rough and Ready Creek watershed. Although multiple miles from the nearest active fire perimeter on the 2023 Smith River Complex, the agency bulldozed multiple unnecessary “contingency lines,” including the beloved Mud Springs Trail. This spectacular trail climbs from lower Rough and Ready Creek and its broad, rocky floodplain at the edge of the Illinois Valley, to the jumbled rock and wind-torn Jeffrey pine near the summit of Buckskin Peak. Located at the heart of the South Kalmiopsis Inventoried Roadless Area and the Rough and Ready Flats Botanical Area, the area is well-known for its incredible biological values, and as such, the agencies themselves have approved these designations to protect them.

A dozerline was pushed across the flats along the Mud Springs Trail and into the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. This photo shows the dozerline as it reaches South Fork Rough and Ready Creek.

Despite the area’s immense biological values and unique backcountry habitat, the Forest Service authorized fire crews to bulldoze two major stream crossings on lower Rough and Ready Creek and through the Rough and Ready Flats Botanical Area. The dozerline then merges with the Mud Springs Trail, and extends roughly two miles to South Fork Rough and Ready Creek. This bulldozing occurred on stream terraces, through boulder-strewn flood plains, Jeffrey pine woodland, chaparral, native bunchgrass clearings and across the broad, clear, boulder-lined stream. From the National Forest boundary to the forks of Rough and Ready Creek, federal land managers allowed fire crews to devastate over 1 mile of this historically scenic trail and the incredibly intact, undisturbed stream corridor that surrounds it. For those of us that know the Mud Springs Trail and the charm of lower Rough and Ready Creek, these dozer tracks leave a lasting scar. They also demonstrate the total lack of appreciation local land managers have for the wildlands of our region. To make matters worse, the non-strategic dozerline crosses Rough and Ready Creek twice, dead ends at South Fork Rough and Ready Creek, served absolutely no role in fire containment, and was not built in a way that would facilitate its use as a fireline.

Crews also bulldozed roughly 2.5 miles to the south along a long-unused mining track that follows the ridgeline between Rough and Ready Creek and the West Fork Illinois River, through the South Kalmiopsis Inventoried Roadless Area to the McGrew Trail. Although historically impassable and little disturbed, this old mining track had largely healed over before the 2002 Biscuit Fire when it was originally bulldozed as fireline. The route was again bulldozed during the 2018 Klondike Fire, the 2021 Slater Fire, and now the 2023 Smith River Complex. After decades of recovery and revegetation, this old mining track has now been bulldozed three times in the last five years. At the same time, this fireline has not been utilized for fire containment since the 2002 Biscuit Fire, and again, played absolutely no role in the containment of the Smith River Complex Fire.

A dozerline built through unique serpentine grasslands and Jeffrey pine savanna in the Rough and Ready Flats Botanical Area.

Additional dozerline was also built to the north. This dozerline starts with a crossing of Rough and Ready Creek near the National Forest boundary and turns downstream. Following a broad, rocky river terrace, the dozerline then crosses two tributary streams and extends through large portions of the Rough and Ready Flat Botanical Area in unique bunchgrass clearings and Jeffrey pine savanna habitats. It then switches back to the ridge for approximately two miles where it meets roughly two miles of handline, and over 5 miles of additional dozerline.

In total, this dozerline continues out the ridge to Woodcock Mountain and nearly to Tennessee Pass through large portions of the South Kalmiopsis Inventoried Roadless Area, including extremely intact serpentine woodlands, incredibly rich native plant communities, and some of the most unique wildland habitat remaining on the West Coast. At 104,620 acres, the South Kalmiopsis Inventoried Roadless Area is among the largest unprotected wildlands in the region; however, it is not just its size, but its extreme biodiversity, wild fisheries, world-class water quality, exceptional backcountry solitude, and its adjacency to other large wildlands in the Wild Rivers region that makes the area particularly unique and important from a conservation perspective.

In 1936, legendary Forest Service employee and early wilderness advocate, Bob Marshall, proposed an over one million acre “wild area” in the Kalmiopsis region, including the Rough and Ready Creek watershed. This proposed “wild area” would have extended from the mighty Rogue River canyon to the wildlands of the Smith River in California, encompassing what is currently known as the Kalmiopsis Wildlands. Unfortunately, this forward thinking proposal was not implemented, and in 2023 our local Forest Service managers fail to see the value of the area, or responsibly manage its spectacular wildland landscapes. Today, discretionary fire suppression impacts are among the most prominent and avoidable impacts to these undeveloped and undisturbed federal lands, and the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, in particular, appears to have a pattern of indiscriminate, unnecessary and politically motivated fire suppression activities with disastrous and long-lasting consequences.

We are encouraging the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and the Region 6 Forest Service to reconsider their often operationally ineffective and unnecessarily environmentally damaging roadless and wilderness fire suppression activities. All too often these dozerlines are implemented as ideologically driven, political theater and do not meaningfully contribute to fire containment. In fact, the majority of the wilderness or roadless area dozerlines implemented in recent years have either burned over or have not been utilized for fire containment. In the case of Rough and Ready Creek, and so many others, the agency implements “contingency” line far from any active fire perimeter, the damage is sustained, and the fireline is never used in any fire management capacity.

Dozerline directly adjacent to Lower Rough and Ready Creek in the Rough and Ready Flats Botanical Area.

The agency has a responsibility under the Wilderness Act to manage for an “enduring wilderness resource” and an obligation under the Roadless Rule to protect the wildland values of Inventoried Roadless Areas. It also has an administrative obligation under their forest plan to protect designated Botanical Areas and resolve all conflicts “in favor of the botanical resource.” Unfortunately, these commitments to the public and to the land are not being met and the agency has instead invested in damaging, theatrical fire fighting meant more to appease political interests, demonstrate an “aggressive” response to wildfires, and degrade wildland values — under the guise of emergency fire management — rather than to contain a fire or protect a community.

With each passing fire season, wildlands throughout the region are being impacted by such shortsighted management activities implemented under the veil of secrecy provided by emergency wildfire declarations. Without public input, public comment, public disclosure, or public accountability, land managers are routinely damaging our region’s most intact public land habitats. At Klamath Forest Alliance, we work to document, address, and disclose the impact of these fire suppression activities and advocate for reforms that would either reduce or eliminate these impacts, while focusing more directly on community wildfire protection during wildfire events. We can and should protect communities and wildlands at the same time.

For more information on the impact of fire suppression activities on conservation areas within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest from 2017-2023, click here.

Please email National Forest officials at the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and at the Region 6 Forest Service and tell them:

1) You are concerned by the increase in wilderness and roadless area impacts occurring during fire suppression activities on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, including those that occurred this past season on Rough and Ready Creek in the South Kalmiopsis Inventoried Roadless Area and the Rough and Ready Flats Botanical Area.

2) You are concerned that discretionary fire suppression activities are having severe impacts to Inventoried Roadless Areas, Botanical Areas, Wilderness Areas, and other areas with important scenic, biological and backcountry values on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and other Region 6 Forest Service lands.

3) You do not support dozerline construction in Wilderness Areas, Botanical Areas, Inventoried Roadless Areas and other important National Forest habitats, especially when these firelines have a low probability of success, are built miles from an active fire perimeter as contingency lines, and do not directly protect nearby communities.

4) Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics (MIST) should be prioritized and utilized more effectively to support fire management, fire containment, and/or biological objectives on sensitive National Forest lands

5) Rough and Ready Creek is a national treasure with extremely high scenic, biological, backcountry and other natural resource values that should be protected for future generations. Implementing miles of unnecessary dozerline, miles from the nearest fire perimeter, in non-strategic locations, with multiple stream crossings, and in highly sensitive landscapes is inappropriate and inconsistent with the Inventoried Roadless Area and Botanical Areas land use allocations in the area.

6) Region 6 Forest Service should conduct a review of all fire suppression activities implemented in Inventoried Roadless Areas, Wilderness Areas, Botanical Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers and National Recreation Areas since 2017. This review should quantify and analyze the cumulative biological impact of these activities, the impact to roadless and wilderness values, and the consistency of these activities with existing land use allocations and environmental regulations, including the 2001 Roadless Rule, 1968 Wild and Scenic River Act, and the 1964 Wilderness Act. This review should also require a critical analysis of fire suppression activities in wildland landscapes, documenting their effectiveness in facilitating fire management or containment objectives, the necessity of their creation, the increased risks they may pose to firefighting personnel, and the political dynamics influencing their creation.

Email the following Forest Service officials:

Elizabeth Berger, Regional Forester

Jacob Winn, Acting Forest Supervisor, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest

Rough and Ready Creek is one of the most unique and spectacular wildlands in our region and is worth far more than the unnecessary dozerlines built during the 2023 Smith River Complex by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. We encourage our federal land managers to leave a legacy for future generations and adequately protect and maintain the wildland habitats of this incredible region. The people of southwestern Oregon value the wildlands of this region and we hope that the federal officials entrusted to protect these lands can learn to love, sustain and support these wildlands as well.

Please support Klamath Forest Alliance as we work to protect wildland habitats across the region! A tax deductible donation will support our one-of-a-kind wildfire programs focused on documenting, addressing, and disclosing fire suppression impacts, while also advocating for the reform of fire suppression strategies. Fire suppression is now one of the biggest threats to both protected and unprotected wildland habitats. We work to both protect wildland habitats, restore fire to fire adapted landscapes, and promote a more nuanced approach to fire management. Please support our work!