by Zach Urness
Salem Statesman Journal
August 31, 2014
The first time Andy Stahl heard about the Devil's Staircase, it was little more than a wilderness myth.
Rumors of a spectacular waterfall hidden deep within one of the Coast Range's most remote and inaccessible canyons spread through Oregon State University's Environmental Center in the late 1970s like sightings of Bigfoot, sparking debate among students about whether this central coast Shangri-La actually existed.
Every bushwhacking adventure into the thick, cliff-walled jungle surrounding Wassen Creek — the supposed location of the fabled cascade — ended in failure, often after a miserable rain-soaked night in the wild.
"Year after year, students at Oregon State attempted to find it, and every time they failed," Stahl said. "It wasn't something that could be found on a map. It didn't have an official name, there certainly wasn't a trail, and the land is just damn hard to get through. A lot of people thought it didn't exist."
In 1981, the forestry graduate decided the mystery had to be solved. With a young environmental activist named Sherry Wellborn — who would later become his wife — Stahl traversed over 30 miles of Wassen Creek in tennis shoes.
The trip would not only prove Devil's Staircase did exist — and that it was as beautiful as hoped — it would set in motion a three-decade effort to preserve one of the largest remaining old-growth ecosystems in Oregon's Central Coast Range.
The effort to safeguard the 200-foot Douglas firs and cedars, spotted owl and coho salmon habitat, and dense interior valleys surrounding Devil's Staircase and Wassen Creek — a landscape nestled between the Smith and Umpqua rivers east of Reedsport — has been a quixotic journey that began in the early 1980s.
It has twice survived the threat of logging while coming within a razor's edge of being protected by Congress in 1984. It has come within striking distance of being protected as the 30,540 acre Devil's Staircase Wilderness multiple times since 2009 yet has always come just short.
With the 50th anniversary of Wilderness Act on Sept. 3 — a landmark piece of legislation aimed at preserving the nation's most important landscapes in their natural state — the Devil's Staircase offers a glimpse into the past and present struggle to preserve one of Oregon's wildest places.
Wassen Creek flows through dense old-growth forest in a remote canyon in Oregon's Central Coast Range east of Reedsport.
The main thing Stahl remembers about that three-day trip down the length of Wassen Creek was how isolated he felt in a 1,800-foot canyon that hadn't changed much since Columbus set sail.
This struck him as remarkable, especially since the Coast Range has been the realm of logging for more than a century. Forest Service, BLM and private logging roads bisect the vast majority of forest. Much of the landscape is a checkerboard of tree farms, clear-cuts, second growth, or some combination.
Yet within Wassen Creek, home to almost 26,000 acres of intact old-growth, Stahl found a deeper solitude than anywhere he'd previously traveled.
Massive Douglas fir and cedars rose 200 feet into the canopy overhead. In three days he saw more wildlife — black bear, river otter, elk and signs of cougar — than during a year's worth of hiking and backpacking.
On the third day, they found the Devil's Staircase, where Wassen Creek drops 50 feet down a series of sandstone tiers.
"It struck me that we were as isolated geographically as I had ever been in my life — the cliffs were so sheer that if one of us broke an ankle, I didn't have any idea how we'd get out," Stahl said. "I saw no evidence of humans — not a fire ring, blaze on a tree or boot mark. It was remarkable — not a canella of human presence."
THE FIRST THREAT OF LOGGING
Not long after Stahl's epic trip, in 1982, Siuslaw National Forest proposed a timber sale that would have led to a 400-acre cut in the Wassen Creek area.
The proposal sparked the first effort to preserve the area.
Environmental activists convinced then-Sen. Mark Hatfield to write a letter holding off the sale. In 1983, the National Wildlife Federation filed suit claiming the area's steep slopes and shallow, unstable soils on the Mapleton Ranger District were highly susceptible to landslides following timber harvests, which damage waterways.
The court ordered the Forest Service to conduct an environmental review and produce an Environmental Impact Statement before offering to sell, "any timber on the Mapleton Ranger District other than limited commercial thinning … firewood … greenery sales and salvage of dead and downed timber sales."
The result was dramatic. Timber harvests fell from 75 million board feet in 1983 to 15 million broad feet in 1984 on the Mapleton Ranger District. Many residents blamed the lawsuit for closing the mills and the city's loss of jobs.
The Wassen Creek area was originally included for protection under the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Act. A cap placed on acreage in the bill forced then-Rep. Jim Weaver to choose between a wilderness area in Southern Oregon and Wassen Creek.
Wassen Creek was the odd wilderness out.
Without wilderness protection, but under no real threat from logging, the Devil's Staircase and Wassen Creek area went quiet as the Forest Wars raged in other parts of the state.
The area was declared critical habitat for the spotted owl by the Endangered Species Act in the early 1990s and the Northwest Forest Plan provided additional protection in 1994, but it never received the wilderness stroke of Congress.
The quiet period ended in 2006 when a 5,000-acre section of the proposed wilderness was included in a draft of the Western Oregon Plan Revision by the Bureau of Land Management to become Timber Management Area.
The inclusion re-energized the wilderness campaign around Devil's Staircase and Wassen Creek that hit full bore in 2007.
Editorials, rallies, media attention and even visits by two of Oregon's congressional delegation — Rep. Peter DeFazio and Sen. Jeff Merkley, who bushwhacked to the waterfall — brought renewed emphasis to preserving the area as wilderness.
Rep. DeFazio has introduced a bill giving the area wilderness protection three times in the House since 2009. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Merkley have introduced similar bills in the Senate three times as well. It passed the full Senate in June with unanimous consent but is a long shot to pass the House.
Wassen Creek remains as difficult to reach today as it did when Stahl made his trip more than 30 years ago.
While some rugged roads provide access along its borders, and barely visible game trails can be followed in places, this roadless, pathless forest remains as difficult to penetrate as ever.
Only around 100 people per year, all with strong navigational skills, endure the hellacious bushwhack into Wassen Creek and Devil's Staircase. Multiple people have been lost or spent an unexpected night among the densely forested ravines attempting to locate the staircase.
But while the forest has changed little, the political climate has taken an unexpected twist during the past few months.
The Devil's Staircase Wilderness bill is now part of a larger package of bills in the House (authored by Rep. DeFazio) and Senate (authored by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden). The package would protect some areas, like the Devil's Staircase, while increasing logging on Oregon's federal O&C lands.
This has put supporters in a tough spot. In some cases, long-term proponents of the wilderness are now fighting the very bill that would finally make the Devil's Staircase Wilderness a reality.
"It's an incredibly awkward spot to be put in after the bill was advancing on its own merits," said Josh Laughlin, who has visited the Devil's Staircase area more than 20 times and is campaign director for Cascadia Wildlands, an Eugene-based environmental group.
"It's one of the wildest places in Oregon — really a magnificent slice of what the Coast Range once looked like. The Devil's Staircase deserves to stand on its own."
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for seven years. He is the author of "Hiking Southern Oregon" and can be reached at zurness@Statesman Journal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Facebook at Zach's Oregon Outdoors.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Today's installment is the first of a two-part series about the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, exploring both the fight to create new wilderness in the example of the proposed Devils Staircase Wilderness and its history in Oregon.
The series continues Monday with dramatic examples of what can happen when nature and human nature collide over the restrictions inherent in the act.
50th ANNIVERSARY OF THE WILDERNESS ACT
On Sept. 3, 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed into law one of the most significant bills in environmental conservation into law. The Wilderness Act provides the highest level of protection for landscapes deemed worth both nationally and locally.
Five percent of the United States (and 2.7 percent of the Lower 48) and four percent of Oregon are protected under the Wilderness Act. In this two-part series, the Statesman Journal explores both the fight to create new wilderness — in the example of the proposed Devil's Staircase Wilderness — and its history in Oregon.
"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
– Text of Wilderness Act