A wilderness of crystal clear rivers, native salmon and steelhead and the rarest of plants
Named for one of the rarest plants on earth, the Kalmiopsis Wilderness is best known for the wild rivers that run thru it—the Chetco, Illinois and North Fork Smith—and the great clarity of their waters. This extreme wilderness of rock and rivers lies in a remote corner of Southwest Oregon, about 18 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and Wild Rivers Coast, It a highly dissected wild land of knife edged ridges, stark rounded plateaus and deep boulder strewn canyons where the purest of waters flow.
The area’s great antiquity, diverse geology, rugged topography and near-coastal climate have made it a primal refuge for wild salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout and the rarest of plants. Not for the faint of heart, it’s a wilderness of deep silence and solitude. But mostly the Kalmiopsis is a working wilderness providing clean drinking drinking water and beautiful rivers for downstream communities,
An unfinished wilderness
Surrounding the congressionally protected 179,850 acre Wilderness are the unprotected North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas—88,00 and 104,000 acres respectively, Together they make up Oregon’s largest unprotected National Forest wild area. The South Kalmiopsis is threatened by nickel strip mining and off-road vehicle use. The unprotected Kalmiopsis wild lands are equally exceptional and ecologically important to the protected wilderness they embrace.
John Hart, on the 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness, wrote in High Country News of some of the most notable omissions to the National Wilderness Preservation System:
This was surely true of my Oregon favorite, the Kalmiopsis. Here, a small pre-1964 wilderness area lay in the middle of a vast roadless sweep of the Klamath Mountains, a swirl of serpentine plateaus and fir-forested ridges dissected by some of the nation’s wildest rivers. Generous rain, low elevation, and diverse geology made the region a garden of rare and endemic plants. The same factors worked against its protection: The woods promised old-growth timber; the serpentine plateau, marketable minerals. In 1978, Congress passed a disappointingly modest Kalmiopsis boundary expansion. The debate about roadless lands outside that line has continued ever since.
The current struggle over the unfinished Kalmiopsis is centered on preventing the development of nickel strip mines in the southern half of the unprotected South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. See our Kalmiopsis Rivers website.
Three rivers run through it
While its plant diversity is legendary, the rivers of the Kalmiopsis are what sets it apart from other Wilderness Areas. The Kalmiopsis is the birthplace of and watershed to the Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith and Chetco Rivers. In the north—deep in one of the remotest river canyons in the West, flows the Wild and Scenic Illinois River. The Wild Section of the Illinois It’s big roadless area tributaries, like Silver and Indigo Creeks, swell its size and the number of its wild salmon and steelhead, which are caught as part of the Rogue River’s world class fishery.
All are world class salmon and steelhead rivers, have nationally outstanding waters and are cherished by white water boaters. The Chetco and North Fork Smith provide downstream communities with some of the purest drinking water in the West. The Illinois is the wild salmon and steelhead stronghold for the greater Rogue Basin.
The Kalmiopsis Wilderness has served us well
Writing in the Medford Mail Tribune on the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Tim Palmer observes that the Kalmiopsis has served us well:
Perhaps most important, the Kalmiopsis supplies headwaters to three rivers that run to the core of what makes our region special: the Chetco in its secret plunge across big mountains to the coast, the Illinois coursing its canyon corridor and feeding requisite cold water and wild salmon to the legendary fishery of the Rogue, and the North Fork Smith — the most pristine river in all of California and vital to that state’s greatest salmon stronghold. Recognizing all that, Congress added an additional 102,000 acres to Kalmiopsis in 1978. But that was only half of what was proposed, and not enough to protect our rivers and fish.
Palmer is referring to the unprotected North and South Kalmiopsis which are direct watersheds to the Wild and Scenic Illinois, Chetco and North Fork Smith and to five streams that the Forest Service has found eligible to become National Wild and Scenic Rivers.
The 2002 Biscuit Fire
One cannot talk about the Kalmiopsis Wilderenss without mentioning the 2002 Biscuit Fire. A lightening storm ignited a series of fires on the edge of the Wilderness or in the surrounding roadless areas. While fires in the same areas had been quickly contained in previous years, the resources weren’t available in 2002. Click here to read more about the Biscuit Fire.
This, with a weather anomaly,resulted in a fire that, together with many thousands of acres of Forest Service ignited fire, changed parts of the Kalmiopsis dramatically. While the essence of this rugged wild area remains the same, the fire devastated the wilderness trail system. See the Siskiyou Mountain Club’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness page..
A bit of Kalmiopsis Wilderness history
The Kalmiopsis was one of the Forest Service’s original administrative Wild Areas (78,850 acres), In 1964 this Wild Area became the Kalmiopsis Wilderness (76,900 acres) as part of this nation’s original National Wilderness Preservation System that was established by Congress in the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act.
Originally encompassing most of the upper watershed of the Chetco River, the Kalmiopsis was expanded to the north and south in the 1978 Endangered American Wilderness Act. It now totals 179,850 acres. The 1978 additions included the wild remote canyon of the Illinois River and the headwaters of the North Fork Smith River. But the expansion was only a fraction of what President Carter supported and much less than that originally proposed by Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR).
The three beautiful rivers flowing through the Kalmiopsis where added to the National Wild and Scenic River System years later. The Illinois was one of the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act’s original study rivers. In 1984, Congress added a 50.4 mile long segment of the Illinois to the National Wild and Scenic River System. The Oregon Omnibus Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1988 added 44.5 miles of the 55.4 mile long Chetco River and the full length of the North Fork Smith River in Oregon (13 miles) to the National Wild and Scenic River System.
1936: Bob Marshall’s vision for the greater Kalmiopsis wild area
But the struggle to protect Kalmiopsis Country goes back even further that this. In 1936, Bob Marshall (1901-1939), director of the Forest Service’s Land and Recreation Department put forth a visionary and ambitious proposal to conserve disappearing wild landscapes. He carried out an inventory of wild areas in the western United States each of which included a million or more acres of wildlands.
Marshall’s goal was to build a national wilderness system that represented the finest and most vast wilderness resource lands in the country. One of Marshall’s one million-acre or greater wild areas was the rugged Siskiyou mountain region of southwest Oregon and northwest California. When Marshall studied the area, he envisioned a great wilderness, encompassing lands from the Rogue River in the North to the Smith River in the South.
It’s only in the Kalmiopsis Country of Southwest Oregon and Northwest California that Marshall’s vision has not been carried out. In Idaho, the ~ 2.3 million acre Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness was established in 1980. Combined with the Gospel Hump Wilderness (1978) the total climbs to 3.3 million acres. Separated by only a dirt road from the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness is the 1.3 million acre Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. A 3rd Marshall wild area is the 1 million acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in western Montana.
The war on Bob Marshall’s Kalmiopsis Wildlands
James Monteith, Coordinator of the Oregon Wilderness Coalition (later Oregon Natural Resources Council and now Oregon Wild) wrote in a 1977 newsletter:
Bob Marshall, working for the Forest Service in the 1930’s, proposed a Siskiyou-Klamath Mountains Wilderness which extended from north of the Rogue River south into California, enclosing nearly a million acres. In the forties the Forest Service did in-house studies on the area, and several proposals of the same magnitude were suggested. In the past thirty years upwards of 80% of the de facto Kalmiopsis Wilderness has been roaded, logged developed and/or sold. About 320,000 acres remain, the last of the core of the great Kalmiopsis Wildlands.
In 1946 the forest Service’s named the upper watershed of the Chetco River the administrative 78,850 acre Kalmiopsis Wild Area. 
The 1964 Wilderness Act
Eight years after introduction of the first Wilderness bill, President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Wilderness Act consisting of 9.1 million acres years of National Forest Wild Areas including 76,900 acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The Wilderness Society’s webpage for the Wilderness Act includes the original recording of President Johnson’s remarks on signing the landmark legislation. He emphasized that Act was supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. The vote in the Senate was 73 to 12 and in the House 373 to 1.
The 1978 Endangered American Wilderness Act
Representative Jim Weaver and President Jimmy Carter wanted a 280,000 acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness—77,000 acres of existing Wilderness and a 203,000 acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness Addition. Mark Hatfield (R OR), a sponsor of the Endangered American Wilderness Act at first proposed a 134,000 acre addition and then whittled it down to the 102,000 acres that was added to the Kalmiopsis in 1978 Act signed by President Carter.
The USDA’s 2004 recommended Kalmiopsis Wilderness Additions
While there’s about 180,000 to 250,000 acres of unprotected wilderness quality lands surrounding the congressionally designated Kalmiopsis Wilderness, there’s been no additions to the protected Wilderness since 1978. However, in 2004, the USDA Forest Service, under the Bush Administration, proposed adding ~64,000 acres in five parcels to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Click here to read more about the proposal and see map.
Oregon’s Governor (2004 to 2009)
In 2004, Oregon’s Governor Ted Kulongoski wanted the Bush Administration to recommend the addition of the unprotected Inventoried Roadless Areas surrounding the Kalmiopsis Wilderness to the National Wilderness Preservation System. On July 1st of that year the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest issued a press release about it’s 64,000 acre Wilderness addition proposal to Congress, Governor Kulongoski issued his own statement saying he was disappointed in the small size of the Administration’s Wilderness recommendation. In 2009, the Governor wrote to Senator Ron Wyden, suggesting the addition of about 250,000 acres to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and 22 of the streams flowing through it to the National Wild and Scenic River System. Read the Governor’s letter to Senator Wyden.
The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act
September 3rd, 2014 mareds the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act. It was also the half century mark for the establishment of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. As Tim Palmer writes the Wilderness has served us well, but it’s time to make it whole. Celebrate the Kalmiopsis Wilderness by working to add the surrounding unprotected wildlands—the North and South Kalmiopsis— to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness
Words for today from the past—John Hart | A hiking guide to the Kalmiopsis Wildlands
One of the best, succinct descriptions of the Kalmiopsis Wildlands is found in John Hart’s Hiking the Bigfoot Country. John may have been the first to use the name “Kalmiopsis Wildlands” to describe the rugged and starkly beautiful protected and unprotected wilderness.
About 100,000 acres of the area Hart writes about was added to the existing 79,000 acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the 1978 Endangered American Wilderness Act. Yet to this day, there remains between 150,000 and 200,000 acres of unprotected wildlands surrounding the protected 179,000 acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
While there’s been incursions, that so much is left is due to decades of citizen lead efforts, the area’s ruggedness and it’s exceptional botanical, fisheries and recreation values. In 1976 Hart wrote:
“The Klamath Mountains have a way to taking you by surprise. The beauty you find there is more often than not another beauty than the one you were braced for. Sometimes it is a greater beauty.
Of the five great wildlands that survive between the Rogue River and Trinity River, the Kalmiopsis is by all means the strangest. Here a great river flows out of civilized country and disappears into some of the ruggedest wilderness mountains of Oregon.
Here you can walk for days in dusky forests, or on the surface of a geological curiosity—a huge, almost unbroken shield of weathered red peridotite.
It was here that the botanist R. H. Whittaker tested his ideas about the characteristic vegetation of peridotite and its variant, serpentine. This vegetation, he showed, is not just a stunted form of the familar coniferous forest of the Northwest. Rather, it is a thoroughly different community of plants.
Comparing this vegetation to the lush woods growing nearby on more favorable soils he wrote: “So different are their vegetations that one might imagine one had traveld to another part of the continent—if it were not difficult to think of another area much resembling the Siskiyou serpentines.” Geologist call the formation, covering hundreds of square miles, “the Josephine Sheet.”
About the unprotected South Kalmiopsis that’s watershed to Rough and Ready Creek, Baldface Creek, North Fork Smith and West Fork Illinois River, he writes:
“Not quite so rugged as the basin of the Chetco to the north, this land is both redder and wilder. This is the climax of peridotite landscape, the stunted yet lovely forests and the enormous reddish vistas to the Josephine Sheet.”
He continues about the Kalmiopsis Wildlands in general:
“The Illinois country, the Chetco basin, the peridotite borderlands: together they make up one of the largest blocks of wild country in Oregon. If there were nothing of interest about it but its emptiness and its size, the Kalmiopsis would still be worth protecting. But we are just beginning to under the richness that is packed within these most undefended borders.
Little of that richness is commercial. Compared to other parts of Oregon, the Kalmiopsis wildland does not contain much material wealth. The trees that grow from peridotite are valued for their oddity, not for their timber … There are deposits of nickel and chromium, marginal to be sure, but attractive enough so that miners are pushing in with bulldozers to find them.
There is just enough timber in the north, just enough mineral potential in the south to guarantee that the Kalmiopsis Wildlands will be roaded and logged and mined right down to its small protected core—unless enough people speak out and ask that it be left alone.
The word “unique” has been used too much. It is a label one hesitates now to apply. Perhaps it is better here only to say that this is land of most uncommon worth and charm. If it goes—if we permit its exploitation for the little does of commodities it could yield— there will never be anything quite like it, for us, again.”