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Chapter 3 -- History of the Smith River Watershed (continued)

After World War II

After World War II, a new economic base emerged, centering on timber production, but also including agriculture, tourism, and recreation. Mining receded in importance. Chromite mining declined in 1957 when the US. government discontinued stockpiling this mineral (California Department of Water Resources 1965). By this time, gold mining was of minor importance. On public lands in the region, timber resources were virtually untouched until the 1950s. After 1955, timber harvest from national forest lands increased dramatically: from the 1950s to the 1990s, approximately one billion board feet were harvested from federal lands in the Smith River watershed (Dale 1992, California Assembly 1961). In the heyday of logging, timber industry workers comprised 62% of the Del Norte County work force. Hundreds of miles of logging roads were built. During this time, recreation also increased including hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking (Davies and Frank 1992).

In 1961, local residents believed that contemporary logging activities, with a few isolated exceptions, were not a significant impact on stream ecosystems and anadromous fish populations. The need for strict regulation of logging to protect streams was not recognized. As late as 1958, a Legislative Council opinion #1107 stated that, "...there appears to be no authority in the Forest Practice Act to promulgate rules for the protection of fish life" on private timberlands. No buffer strips were required and there were no regulations against using streams as roads or skid trails (California Assembly 1961).

Due to geographic isolation, it was impractical to divert the Smith River into the California Water Project. Nonetheless, potential reservoirs on the Smith River for flood control and other purposes were evaluated. Promising damsites were identified on the Main Fork at Fort Dick, on the North Fork below Diamond Creek, on Rowdy Creek, on the South Fork above the confluence with the Middle Fork, and on the South Fork above Gordon Creek (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1971b, California Department of Water Resources 1966). There are dozens of minor water diversions from the Smith River (California Department of Water Resources 1965).

In 1968, Redwood National Park was established. The national park and neighboring Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park protect more than 20 square miles in the Mill Creek drainage and adjacent areas. The legislation establishing the national park also traded stands of old growth redwood forest in the Smith River watershed for other ancient forests on Redwood Creek. In 1978, the park was expanded to the dismay of the local timber industry.

In 1972, the Smith River was protected under the California Wild and Scenic Rivers program. In 1974, a local environmental group, Save Our Siskiyous, was formed to prevent construction of a proposed road from Gasquet to Orleans through the Southern Siskiyou Mountains. The so-called "GO road," as planned by the Forest Service, would be located near important spiritual sites for several Native American tribes. The group was later renamed the Siskiyou Mountains Resources Council.

In 1977, a proposal for mining nickel and cobalt was submitted by Cal-Nickel Corporation. The company proposed mining of laterite deposits on Gasquet Mountain between the North Fork of the Smith River and Hardscrabble Creek. Although exploratory holes have been drilled, the future of the project is clouded by designation of the Smith River National Recreation Area. In addition to Cal-Nickel there were about 83 other valid mining claims in the Smith River watershed. Most of these are placer gold mining claims.

In July of 1980, California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. petitioned the Secretary of Interior to add the Smith River to the federal Wild and Scenic River System. In 1981, this designation was obtained through administrative action. Federal Wild and Scenic designation encouraged federal agencies to protect wild and scenic qualities (California Department of Fish and Game 1980). In the Smith River system, 315 miles of streams and rivers were eventually designated wild, scenic, and recreational. In 1984, the California Wilderness Act set aside 153,000 acres as the Siskiyou Wilderness, including large areas in the headwaters of the South Fork Smith and an area in the headwaters of the Middle Fork (Dale 1992). However, an unprotected corridor was left for the controversial GO road.

In 1985, the Smith River watershed was proposed as a national park by the Save the Redwoods League and others including William Penn Mott, former National Park Service director. In 1986, the Secretary of Interior announced that the Smith River was being considered, along with 160 other rivers, for "national river park" status. In 1987, Congressman Tom Lantos of California proposed a two-year study of the proposed Smith River National Park. The timber industry was alarmed by this trend partly because of previous successful campaigns for establishment and expansion of Redwood National Park. They were anxious to keep the remaining timber base in production (Dale 1992, Smith River NRA fact sheet)

Also in the late 1980s, the State of California decided to build a large prison near the lower Smith River. The proposed method for treating waste water from the prison was viewed by many as a threat to the water quality in the river. Opposition to the waste water treatment system included the Del Norte County Health Department. Ultimately the state backed off from its original plan and built an excellent waste water treatment system. After winning the struggle over water treatment at the prison, conservationists turned their attention to achieving greater protection for the Smith River (Kier 1995).

In March 1980, Representative Doug Bosco introduced a bill to create the Smith River National Recreation Area (NRA). This bill was a compromise in that it would maintain water quality and other environmental values while allowing timber harvest in some suitable areas. In May of 1990, the Smith River Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups, began negotiations with Representative Bosco to improve the bill. At the request of the environmentalists, the bill was modified to add the GO road corridor to the Siskiyou Wilderness. This was important to environmentalists and Native Americans because it precluded construction of the GO road (Dale 1992).

In September 1990, the amended bill was introduced. The bill passed the House by unanimous voice vote. In the Senate, Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson sponsored the bill. Proposed mining restrictions were relaxed to appease Senator James McClure of Idaho. To gain the necessary votes for passage, restrictions on salvage logging in ancient forests were also weakened. In the final hours before Congress adjourned for the year, the bill establishing the Smith River National Recreation Area was passed. In November of 1990, it was signed into law (Dale 1992, Smith River NRA fact sheet).

The Smith River received further protection from the President's Northwest Forest Plan which was finalized in April 1994. As part of the aquatic conservation strategy, the plan designated the Smith River as a key watershed. This includes restrictions on timber harvest. As part of the Forest Plan, the Forest Service has completed a watershed analysis for the Smith River NRA and a management plan for late seral reserves (McCain et al. 1995, USFS 1995). The NRA includes five late successional reserves that are divided into ten treatment areas. These reserves are being managed to maintain old growth dependent species.

In the Smith River basin, land management differs between public lands in the upper watershed and private lands near the coast. Management of public lands, including national forest, national park, and state park lands, emphasizes recreation and ecosystem protection. Both the Northwest Forest Plan and the Smith River Recreation Area Management Plan limit timber harvest and road building on the public lands. On private lands near the lower river and its tributaries, commodity production is important, especially timber and agriculture. Almost all the land along the lower Smith River, downstream from Jedediah Smith State Park, is privately held. Rowdy Creek is in private ownership except for the headwaters which are within the National Recreation Area. Mill Creek is divided between public and private ownership.

The Smith River floodplain extends to the south along Talawa Slough to Lake Earl and Lake Talawa. Lake Talawa is separated from the ocean by a sand bar. Lake Earl and Lake Tolowa form the largest coastal lagoon in California, consisting of about 10,000 acres. During periods of heavy rain, water level in the lakes rises as much as eleven feet or more. When water levels increase by four to six feet, surface area increases by 2,200 to 4,200 acres and nearby dunes and fields are flooded (California Department of Water Resources 1970). Flood water from Lake Earl sometimes flows north and enters the lower Smith River near the "cattle crossing." However, during extremely high flows, large volumes of water sometimes flow from the lower Smith River into Lake Earl. When the water level increases enough to overtop the sandbar, the lake rapidly decreases in size. For many years, local ranchers opened the sandbar to alleviate flooding of pasture lands.

Disagreement has developed about appropriate times and conditions for breaching the sandbar. Waterfowl benefit from maximizing the size of wetland habitat by keeping the lake level as high as possible. On the other hand, anadromous fish, such as coho salmon, need access to the lakes and their feeder streams at certain times in order to spawn. At present, California Department of Fish and Game owns most of the land surrounding the lake and proposes breaching the sandbar when the lake rises eight feet. The issue is further complicated by proponents of a proposed community near the lake who argue in favor of breaching the sandbar when the lake rises four feet. Due to the listing of the coho salmon as a threatened species, it is likely that the sandbar will be breached to accommodate coho access during their migration period (Kier 1995).

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