80% of Oregon’s residents and communities draw their drinking water from rivers and streams that begin in a forest (photo by Andrew Kumler).

Opinion: Enhancing Oregon’s River Safeguards Would Be a Lasting Legacy

by Bethany Cotton, Conservation Director for Cascadia Wildlands
Originally published in The Register-Guard, June 26, 2022

During a time of profound partisanship, Oregon’s federal elected leaders are working diligently to protect more of the state’s key arteries loved by Oregonians of every political persuasion: our rivers. Key to clean drinking water, recreation economies, sustainable rural development, imperiled species’ recovery, and wildfire and climate resilience, Oregon’s rivers are our state’s lifeblood.

I grew up exploring Oregon’s wild rivers: the Rogue in my home watershed, the Chetco, Illinois, Smith and Klamath not too far afield, were part of my early adventures in hiking, swimming, camping and rafting, helping form my conservation ethic. The summer before covid, I rafted the full Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue over four days with my sister, the most uninterrupted solo time we’d had together in years. We rowed and swam and laughed, spotting wildlife and identifying native wildflowers, camping on the banks of the river and eating under the stars. These are experiences I wish for this and future generations of Oregonians and all those who visit our state.

Congressman Peter DeFazio’s Wild Rogue Conservation and Recreation Enhancement Act, introduced in April and receiving a committee vote this week, is the result of over a decade of locally-driven advocacy to enhance protections for Southwestern Oregon’s beloved Rogue River. Amongst other provisions, the bill creates the 98,000-acre Rogue Canyon National Recreation Area. The proposed legislation also expands the Wild Rogue Wilderness by 59,000 acres, encompassing the 46,000-acre Zane Grey Roadless Area currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – the largest roadless area managed by the BLM in the Pacific Northwest. The area is home to some of our last remaining low-elevation old-growth forests and more than 60 miles of waterways, but does not yet have the permanent protection it deserves.

Senator Ron Wyden’s Rivers Democracy Act, co-sponsored by Senator Jeff Merkley, will extend Wild and Scenic Rivers protections to nearly 4,700 miles of Oregon’s rivers, more than tripling the state’s currently safeguarded river miles. Senator Wyden solicited community feedback for two years; the river sections designated in the bill came from 15,000 submissions by 2,500 people – a true grassroots effort.

In addition, Congressman DeFazio’s Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act will permanently ban strip-mining on over 100,000 acres of threatened public lands in the Siskiyou Mountains, safeguarding important drinking water sources, as well as rare plant and salmon habitat. Senator Wyden’s Oregon Recreation Enhancement Act encompasses the provisions in both of Congressman DeFazio’s bills. 

The Outdoor Industry Association estimates Oregon’s recreation economy creates 69,624 jobs and contributes $5.2 billion in added value to the state. Hundreds of Oregon’s businesses, including outfitters, breweries, artists, bed and breakfasts and restaurants have collectively shown their support for these bills.

Enshrining these thoughtful conservation bills into law will be a huge step forward in protecting Oregon’s beloved rivers and tributaries, surrounding wildlands, and the wildlife and people dependent on these spectacular places.

I hope you will join me this National Rivers Month in thanking our legislators for their efforts to date, and in urging them to do everything necessary to get the full suite of river protections passed in this Congress.

Born, raised and educated in Oregon, Bethany Cotton is an environmental attorney and the Conservation Director for Cascadia Wildlands, cascwild.org. She’s a regular contributor to The Register-Guard.