Northwest California mountains and rivers would gain protection under new proposal

A new bill would expand the Siskiyou Wilderness. Credit: Steven Bratman, flickr

Far from the big-name beaches of greater Los Angeles and the soaring cliffs of Yosemite National Park, the wildlands of northwest California are, relatively speaking, a hidden gem. They encompass everything from thick chaparral to oak woodlands to old-growth-dotted mountainsides, drawing visitors from near and far who seek awe, solitude or pulse-quickening recreation adventures. 

Northwest California's mountains and rivers are set to gain both newfound recognition and a heightened level of protection under legislation introduced on July 27. Rep. Jared Huffman's proposal would add 262,000 acres to the national wilderness preservation system—representing America's highest standard of public lands protection--and designate more than 370 miles of the region's crystal-clear waterways as wild and scenic rivers.

The bill also aims to improve recreational opportunities by studying and designating a variety of trails and areas for hiking, mountain biking and motorized recreation. And as part of a plan to restore and protect the region's majestic forests and rivers, it would allow limited strategic timber harvesting to thin unnaturally dense tree plantations and reduce fire risks near roads and private property. 

“Congressman Huffman’s legislation to protect and restore Northwest California’s outstanding forests and rivers is direly needed, particularly at this time when America’s public lands and waters are facing unprecedented threats," said Dan Smuts, senior director of the Pacific region for The Wilderness Society. "This proposal is exciting because of its wide range of benefits including improving recreation, restoring forests, reducing fire risks, improving water quality and growing the local economy. It really charts a positive path forward that benefits communities now as well as future generations.”

The Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act would: 

Designate 262,000 acres of wilderness 

The proposed Underwood Wilderness. Credit: Steve Evans.  

Under Rep. Huffman's proposal, nine existing wilderness areas would be expanded (Chanchelulla, Mount Lassic, North Fork Eel, Siskiyou, Sanhedrin, South Fork Eel, Trinity Alps, Yolla Bolly- Middle Eel and Yuki) and nine new wilderness areas would be established. 

The existing Sanhedrin Wilderness would be expanded under the new bill. Credit: Sarah Wilson via Wilderness.net. 

These lands include regal conifer forests, mountain meadows, steelhead- and salmon-filled waterways and a variety of trails considered extremely challenging for inexperienced hikers. Lands that would gain protection under the bill could include habitat for black bears, mountain lions and river otters as well as hundreds of bird species and several rare plants. 

Protect more than 370 miles of wild & scenic rivers  

A long segment of the South Fork Trinity River has been proposed for Wild & Scenic River protection. Credit: Jeff Morris. 

Under the bill, segments of dozens of rivers and streams totaling more than 370 miles would be designated "wild & scenic rivers," including critically important salmon and steelhead trout habitat.   

Since its inception, the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act has protected more than 200 free-flowing rivers in 39 states as wild & scenic rivers, and helped to counterbalance extensive damming and other development

Restore previously damaged forests and waterways and boost recreation 

Hikers on the proposed Bigfoot National Recreation Trail. Credit: Jason Smith. 

In addition to protecting invaluable lands and waters, the new plan proposes measures to better manage and prevent wildfire risks and restore water quality and aquatic habitat. 

Rep. Huffman's legislation would also strengthen local economies in part by improving access to areas for outdoor recreation activities like hiking, fishing and mountain-biking.