Protecting the beautiful rivers, wild lands and legendary botanical diversity of Oregon's Kalmiopsis Country

The Illinois River Basin | a wild salmon stronghold

Oregon’s Illinois River Basin covers approximately 990 square miles or 633,000-acre in southwest Oregon and northwest California. It’s a major tributary of the world famous National Wild and Scenic Rogue River, making up about 20% of the 3.3 million acre Rogue Basin

In 1984, Congress added 50.4 miles of the mainstem of the Illinois River, within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, to the National Wild and Scenic River System. The 29 mile Wild River Area of the Illinois—as it flows through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness—is a premier whitewater river and one of the most inaccessible wild river areas in the nation.

Confluence of the National Wild and Scenic Rogue and Illinois Rivers
Rivers mirror the integrity of their watersheds. Pictured above – the confluence of the Wild & Scenic Illinois River (clear) and Wild & Scenic Rogue River (muddy). Photo Barbara Ullian.

To protect a river we must protect its watershed

On the 30th Anniversary of the most far reaching river conservation legislation in U.S. history—the 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act—then Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, advised us to celebrate our rivers and passage of the Act. He also wrote that the Act had set in motion a swirl of ideas and a new way of seeing the landscape as a watershed. It’s been decade and a half since the Secretary wrote:

“…rivers are more than scenic resources—they are ecological sentinels that mirror the health of the land around them. [The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act] taught us that to protect a river we must protect its watershed.”

In 2018, we are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the first Wild and Scenic Rivers Act but we are still learning the lesson that protected a river, we must protect its watershed. 

Salmon jumping Illinois River Falls
The Illinois is one of the few rivers in the Lower 48 where you can witness strictly wild populations of salmon jumping natural barriers. Photo Barbara Ullian.

A wild salmon and steelhead stronghold

Four factors make the Illinois River and its tributaries one of the most important salmon refuges on the West Coast, south of the Olympics.

  • The Illinois River is entirely free flowing. There are no high dams within the watershed and none between its confluence with the Rogue River and the Pacific Ocean.
  •  The Illinois River’s wild salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout populations are about as genetically pure as it gets. There’s never been a hatchery program in the basin. According to the Native Fish Society: “Hatchery origin salmon that stray into the river seem to be held up by the long canyon and the difficult Illinois River Falls, not allowing them to reproduce in the upper basin.” The same is likely true of the big lower tributaries of the Illinois, like Silver and Indigo Creeks, with their steep inner gorges and high stream power. The result is the native fish populations in the Illinois River Basin are amongst the most genetically intact in the Pacific Northwest.[1] The Illinois Basin is the considered the anchor for wild salmon and steelhead recovery in the greater Rogue Basin.[2]
  • 81%  of the river’s watershed is National Forest or BLM land (80% and 1% respectively) and a high percentage of the National Forest land is Wilderness, Inventoried Roadless Area or other special land allocations.[3]
  • The Illinois River Basin’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean, many miles of relatively low gradient productive stream habitat within Wilderness or Inventoried Roadless Areas, and relatively lightly populated interior valleys make it one of the highest conservation priorities on the West Coast of the United States, south of the Olympic Peninsula.[4]

Wild salmon jumping Little Falls on Oregon’s National Wild and Scenic Illinois River


The Smith/Illinois/Chetco river connection

There is a theory that the Illinois and Smith Rivers were one until the uplift of the High Siskiyous spit the river in two. It makes sense, The Illinois is much more like the Smith and Chetco Rivers than the Rogue. Geologic similarities aside, all three rivers, have three other things in common—75% or more of their watersheds are federal public land, their waters are exceptionally clear and they are considered world-class salmon and steelhead rivers.

A local effort in the 1980s lead to the establishment of the Smith River National Recreation Area in 1990. Conservation of Smith River in California has been a success. It’s iconic among California and itcan serve as a model conservation of the Illinois River (and Chetco River) in Oregon.

 What’s needed | protect the best, then restore the rest

West Coast river conservation efforts in recent years have focused on river restoration and removing destructive dams. Little attention has been paid to protecting the last best free flowing river system supporting strictly native salmon and steelhead populations—i.e. the Illinois River Basin.

An early 1990s federal effort was made to work with private land owners in the Illinois Valley. The goal was to improve the efficiency of the transport of water and give any saved water to the river and its native fish populations. The effort unfortunately failed.

Nonetheless today, anchored by its National Forest and BLM lands, the Illinois—with the nearby Smith and Chetco rivers—is one of the last best hopes of preserving wild salmon and steelhead runs on the West Coast, south of the Olympics. 

 About the Illinois River Basin

Illinois River Basin map

The Upper Illinois River Basin

The upper Illinois has four major tributaries, which meet in the Illinois River Valley to form the mainstem, which soon dives into the deep spectacular canyons of the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The upper tributaries are:

  • Deer Creek – Once a highly productive tributary of the Illinois River, Deer Creek is still important for coho salmon but its watershed has been heavily logged and water withdrawal are an issue.
  • Sucker Creek flow out of the Kangaroo Roadless Area and Red Buttes Wilderness. It’s watershed has been heavily logged and roaded . Large-scale placer mines also impact the mainstem of Sucker Creek.
  • The East Fork Illinois River flows out of the High Siskiyou Roadless Area and Wilderness in California.
  • The West Fork Illinois River flows out of California. It meets River/Rough and Ready Creek on the west side of the Illinois Valley . Most of the Rough and Ready Creek Watershed and parts of the West Fork’s Watershed flow through the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area.

The Lower Illinois River Basin

The mainstem of the Illinois, beginning at the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Boundary, forms the boundary of the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas, the Squaw Mountain Roadless Area and two largely unroaded areas in the watershed of Rancheria and Six Mile creeks. In 1984, Congress designated 50.4 miles of the mainstem Illinois—from the Forest Boundary to its confluence with the National Wild and Scenic Rogue River—a National Wild and Scenic River.  

The Illinois’ wild salmon and steelhead populations are major contributors to the world class fishery of the lower Rogue River and Southwest Oregon’s Wild Rivers Coast and the large tributaries of the Wild Section of the Illinois create a cool clearwater refuge for the Rogue’s struggling summer steelhead populations. Green sturgeon are said to populate the river up to the Illinois River Falls.

Large tributaries of the lower 50.4 miles of the Illinois River (National Wild and Scenic Illinois River) include:

  • Josephine Creek (27,790 acres) Watershed include parts of the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. Has the highest concentration of Darlingtonia fens (unique rare plant wetlands) in the nation. USDA FS Watershed Condition Class—Functioning at Risk.
  • Briggs Creek (watershed included parts of the Briggs Roadless Area)
  • Collier Creek (all but headwaters are in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness)
  • Silver Creek (watershed includes parts of the North Kalmiopsis Roadless Area)
  • Indigo Creek (watershed includes parts of the North Kalmiopsis Roadless Area)
  • Lawson Creek (watershed include parts of the North Kalmiopsis Roadless Area)

There are many important smaller tributaries of the lower river, including: Sixmile Creek, Fall Creek, Rancheria Creek, Dailey Creek and Kondike Creek.

USDA Forest Service’s Watershed Condition Framework

In 2011 the Forest Service released its analysis and inventory of watersheds on National Forest land across the nation. It classified each watershed as either “functioning properly” (green on map), “functioning at risk” (yellow on map), or “impaired function” (non-shown on map). The agency also identified priority watershed for restoration (black star).

In the Illinois Basin, the Middle Sucker Creek and GrayBack Creek watersheds and the Dunn Creek Watershed have been selected as “priority watersheds.” Dunn Creek is a tributary of the East Fork Illinois River. An action plan as been developed for Middle Sucker and Grayback Creeks. For more inforamtion see the Forest Service Watershed Condition Framework website

Eighty percent of the land base in the Illinois Basin is managed by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. While the BLM lands make up a small percentage of the watershed they are important, botanically and ecologically, and include biologically rich valley floor forests and botanically rich Areas of Critical Environmental Concern and Research Natural Areas in the Illinois River Valley.

Special features and designations in the Illinois River Basin

Inventoried Roadless Areas

  • North and South Kalmiopsis
  • Kangaroo
  • Squaw Mountain
  • Siskiyou
  • Briggs

Research Natural Areas

Botanical Areas

Areas of Critical Environmental Concern

  • Waldo/Takilma
  • West Fork Illinois River
  • Rough and Ready Creek
  • French Flat

State of Oregon

  • Eight Dollar Mountain
  • Illinois River Forks State Park
  • Rough & Ready Creek Botanical Wayside
  • Woodcock Creek

These some of the known special natural features of the Illinois Basin. New discoveries are being made.

About the U.S. Forest Service Eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers

In 1993 and 1994, the Siskiyou National Forest found three tributaries of the Illinois River “eligible” to be added to the National Wild and Scenic River System. The agency is required to protect the outstanding values of these eligible rivers and their interim highest potential classification. The four streams are:

  • Rough and Ready Creek
  • Josephine/Canyon Creeks
  • Silver Creek
  • Indigo Creek

The West Fork Illinois River and its tributary Rough and Ready Creek have the highest concentration of rare plants in Oregon.

In 2001 and 2002, Josephine Creek, which was not originally an “eligible” wild and scenic river, was found to have the highest concentration of large health Darlingtonia Fens (aka Serpentine Fens) in the Klamath-Siskiyou Region.

Since the fens are unique to the serpentine terrain of the Klamath-Siskiyous, it follows that Josephine Creek has the highest concentration of Serpentine Fens in the nation. The fens are rare plant wetlands that are subject to a Conservation Agreement between the Forest Service, BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition to the eligible wild and scenic rivers in the Illinois Basin, the Siskiyou National Forest also found the following streams “eligible”wild and Scenic Rivers.

  • Baldface Creek and all its perennial tributaries, and
  • the South Fork Coquille

Baldface Creek is a tributary of the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River in Oregon.\\

Learn more about the Illinois river.


[1] Native Fish Society, Illinois River

[2] USDA Forest Service, 1997, West Fork Illinois River Watershed Analysis, Siskiyou National Forest, page 14.

[3] See USDA Forest Service’s Siskiyou National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan, Northwest Forest Plan, and individual watershed analysis and USDA Forest Service Watershed Condition Framework Interactive Maps.

[4] Cave Junction is the largest population center in the Illinois River Basin. As of the 2010 census, it’s population was a 1,883.