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OR Wilderness Protections "Back in Business" in Congress

April 8, 2011

PORTLAND, Ore. - Three bills introduced by the Oregon delegation in Congress on Thursday take another run at giving additional protection to several pristine and unusual areas of the state.

The legislation would designate the Devil's Staircase in the Coast Range as wilderness, add acreage to Oregon Scenic Caves National Monument and add protection for the Chetco River in southwest Oregon.

The first two proposals have been introduced before but didn't make it through Congress. Ken Rait, a senior officer with Pew Environment Group, says their chances may be better this year despite a tougher political climate.

"We're talking about places where there's been a critical amount of local support that has caught the interest of local officials and our congressional members. And it is on that basis that we think we will be successful, because these are efforts that have been built from the ground up."

The bills represent about 33,000 new wilderness acres for Oregon. At the end of the last Congress, Rait says, proposals for 2 million acres across the country expired without coming to final votes as lawmakers grappled with other issues.

Part of the Chetco River already is classified as Wild and Scenic - but on the part that isn't, the river has become a hot spot for gold-mining claims and suction dredging, an underwater vacuum-style mining technique. Kavita Heyn, associate director of conservation for American Rivers, says the legislation would slow the "gold rush."

"The most important thing here is (that) it prevents any new claims and, with the expansion of suction-dredge mining in our state, this is really helpful. And so, this legislation could go a long way to ensuring this river, and salmon and drinking water are protected."

The Chetco made American Rivers' national list of "most endangered rivers" last year. The legislation would reclassify sections of the river as Wild and require more scrutiny of existing mining claims. U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio and U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, all D-Ore., are sponsors of the three bills.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR