Since the wilderness battles of the early 1980s, Oregon forest activists have fought to protect Opal Creek, a lovely, nearly intact old-growth watershed on the western flank of the Oregon Cascades.
Last spring, Sen. Mark
Hatfield announced that he would at last grant their wish. The
Oregon Republican, retiring next January after 30 years in the
Senate, introduced the Oregon Resources Conservation Act, a bill to
protect nearly 26,000 acres of never-logged forest by establishing
a wilderness and scenic and recreation area.
have always felt this area should be protected in perpetuity from
commercial timber harvesting and mining," Hatfield intoned on the
Environmentalists were quick to
note the irony. Hatfield has made a career out of wielding his
power as chairman or ranking Republican on the Senate
Appropriations Committee to benefit Oregon's timber industry. He
withdrew support for protecting Opal Creek in the 1984 Oregon
Wilderness Act and the 1988 Oregon Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In
1994 he refused to support an Opal Creek protection bill sponsored
by former Rep. Mike Kopetski, D-Ore.
have done it with a snap of his fingers in 1984, or before or
after," said Tim Lillebo of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.
"It's amazing to me he is doing it now."
their surprise, or cynicism, groups such as ONRC initially
supported the Opal Creek bill. It provided permanent protection for
a remarkable old-growth forest, and the timber industry did not
openly oppose the measure.
But the greased wheels
started squeaking over the summer months. Hatfield, apparently
viewing the Opal Creek bill as one of his last opportunities to
complete some unfinished business, tacked on several contentious
amendments. After four months of intense negotiations, ONRC pulled
Its main gripe centered on a
controversial federal land transfer to the Coquille Tribe. Hatfield
initially wanted a proposal to transfer nearly 59,000 acres of BLM
lands in western Oregon to the small tribe, based in the coastal
town of Coos Bay. The Coquilles had lost their tribal status in
1954. However, in 1989, Hatfield helped the tribe regain federal
The "giveaway" of public lands
smelled bad to the locals. In a rare show of unanimity, the timber
industry, environmentalists, the Coos County Commission and the BLM
attacked the plan, and in an advisory, Coos County voters
overwhelmingly rejected it. Meanwhile, the tribe's economic
development department became the subject of two federal
But this didn't dissuade
Hatfield. Under a compromise worked out with Interior Secretary
Bruce Babbitt, he downsized the transfer to 5,000 acres and
included language that, for the time being, would require the tribe
to manage the lands under existing federal standards. Despite the
changes, most environmental groups remain opposed to the transfer.
The bill contains other controversial measures.
It would give formal powers and money to a working group that has
been meeting since March to recommend projects for restoring the
streams and marshes of the Upper Klamath Basin. Some
conservationists charge that the group is dominated by agriculture.
The bill also provides long-sought permanent protection for the
Bull Run watershed on the western slope of Mount Hood, the source
of Portland's pure, unfiltered drinking water. But that section too
has drawn criticism, from Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden among others,
since it allows logging in a buffer zone.
Donnelly, who has worked for years to protect Opal Creek, argues
that Oregon would be better off with no bill than one riddled with
But Portland State University
biology professor Trygve Steen fears some environmentalists are
throwing away the positive aspects of the bill simply because they
don't want Hatfield to leave an environmental
Steen says, "Without legal protection,
Opal Creek will always be vulnerable to future logging."
Hatfield's bill won Senate approval by unanimous
consent Aug. 2, but will face a big hurdle in the House. Oregon
Rep. Jim Bunn, a Republican freshman whose district includes Opal
Creek, thinks the bill protects too much federal
A Hatfield spokesperson says the senator is
looking for another vehicle, perhaps an appropriations bill, to
pass the Opal Creek bill in the last day of the 104th
For more information, call Hatfield's
office at 202/224-3753; Friends of Opal Creek, 503/897-2921; or
Oregon Natural Resources Council at
writer works out of Portland,