Celebrating Wilderness: 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act

June, 2014
Bear prints in the snow.



This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the federal Wilderness Act and the 30th Anniversary of the California Wilderness Act.

The 1964 Wilderness Act created the framework of our National Wilderness Preservation System which now comprises 110 million acres from coast to coast. This includes lands designated under California’s Wilderness Act such as the Trinity Alps and Siskiyou Wilderness Areas for which the NEC and many other organizations and individuals helped to fight for.

In this issue of EcoNews, we highlight four of Northern California’s cherished wilderness areas: the Trinities, the King Range, Yolla Bolly, and the Siskiyous.



Year designated: 1984
Unique characteristics: Alpine peaks, glaciers and conifer biodiversity.
Former status: Salmon-Trinity Alps Primitive Area

Jeff Morris

The Trinity Alps Wilderness area, originally set aside as the Salmon-Trinity Alps primitive area in 1932, is one of the most unique protected wilderness areas in the country. 

Part of the singularity of the Trinity Alps is its location just 60 miles from the ocean, an extremely unusual circumstance for an alpine area with elevations as high 9,000 ft.  The Alps geographic location, high elevations and diverse geology, including the serpentine soils shared with much of the larger Klamath Mountains area, all contribute to the Alps significant level of biodiversity.  One of the most evident examples of this is the level of conifer diversity, the second greatest in the world. The Alps also still have at least two actual glaciers, a fascinating anomaly for their latitude.

Spanning Trinity and Siskiyou counties and the Shasta-Trinity, Six Rivers and Klamath National Forests, and including the Trinity, Klamath and Sacramento (through the diversion to the Central Valley Project) Rivers, the Trinity Alps play a central role in the ecological health of Northern California.

Humans have visited the Trinities for thousands of years. The Alps were first traditional hunting grounds for the Wintun and other native peoples and, after the arrival of Europeans, were utilized for cattle grazing, hard rock gold mining and, more significantly water. Emerald and Sapphire Lakes up the Stuart’s Fork drainage were tapped in the early part of the 20th century with a significant pipe and siphon system that delivered water to the La Grange mine, which at that time the largest hydraulic mine in the world. 

Thankfully, after the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Bill, our regional community members started to organize an official Wilderness Designation for the Trinity Alps and other areas around the region, including the Siskiyou and Yolla Bolly Wilderness areas (see page 5).
The Trinity Alps have long provided recreational opportunities that continue to be discovered by hikers, equestrians, scientists and explorers of all ages.  With over 55 lakes and more than 800 miles of hiking trails to pristine meadows, streams and mountaintops, there are times when one can hike a trail and not see another soul for days at a time.

Even for those who have never ventured into these beautiful high alpine meadows and lakes, the photos, stories and distant snowcapped mountains hold a special kind of feeling that borders on the mythological. 

In 2008 The New York Times dubbed the Trinities as “An Overlooked Wilderness Jewel in Northern California”.  For those who seek solitude in these magnificent alpine peaks, being overlooked is working just fine.



Mountains plunging into the Pacific Ocean. Photo: Bob Wick, BLM California, Flickr.com CC


Year designated: 2006
Unique characteristics:
Rugged mountain range plunges to the sea. Old Growth Douglas fir forest, dune system of the Mattole River valley.
Part of the King Range National Conservation Area.

Lynn Ryan

Located on the wildest portion of the California coast, the King Range spans 42,964 acres and varies from beaches to high peaks.  It is wild and expansive, displaying diverse forests, meadows, big rain, bright skies and all with the Pacific Ocean sparkling in the background. The King Range was established as wilderness on October 17, 2006 as part of the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act.

How did this come to be? I will tell you my story, while other activists and wilderness lovers certainly have their own stories.

One day in 1999 I was reading the California Wilderness Coalition newsletter and learned of an effort to inventory all remaining roadless Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land in California to begin the process of passing a California Wilderness bill through the United States Congress. I’d long loved the King Range, Cahto Peak and the South Fork Eel, and for twenty years had been part of a group of activists keeping those areas roadless.

So, I went to a meeting and learned how to inventory boundaries, how to draw little dirt roads on maps, and how to talk to hunters and hikers about my “survey” without mentioning Wilderness, often a dirty word and subject to cursing and suspicion. I rousted Humboldt State University students to join me as we solicited letters of support from businesses and elected officials in Arcata, Eureka, Southern Humboldt County, and Mendocino County. We went on hikes—lots of hikes. We searched for old trailheads and fixed flat tires. We pulled each other out of ditches and back up on ridges. We got lost and found, laughed a lot, slept under the stars in the middle of nowhere, and listened to mountain lions screeching in the night.

We pored over maps and spoke with neighboring landowners, trying to explain that wilderness would keep things as they are now-no more roads, no new cattle grazing, no new mining claims, you can still fight fires just like you do now, safe wildlife habitat, clean water, wilderness for future generations.

We worked with Congressman Mike Thompson to introduce a bill in the House of Representatives. We took Senator Barbara Boxer’s advice that each area needed to be “adopted” by a group or individual. We answered tough questions from Senator Dianne Feinstein to gain her endorsement, dogged Governor Schwarzenegger for his nod of approval and obtained letters of support from all Humboldt County supervisors.

Momentum built, community wilderness alliances were formed, everyone wrote letters to their elected officials with heartfelt passion for the beauty of wilderness nurturing our souls in these troubled times.  In a remarkable show of local support, 21 of the 24 county supervisors in the five counties encompassed by the legislation went on record in favor of the bill.

Protection for the King Range, the wildest portion of the California Coast, is an effort that was borne from our community, a host of unsung volunteers and supported by our elected leaders, as a monumental seven year grassroots effort that is an environmental legacy that will serve us all for generations to come.



Wide view of the Yolla Bolly mountains. Photo: Scott Button, Flickr.com CC.

Year designated: 1964
Unique characteristics:
Alpine peaks, headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Eel River, the North Fork of the Eel, the Mad River and the South Fork of the Trinity River.
Former status:
Yolla Bolly Primitive Area

Ryan Henson

The 180,804-acre (over 282 square-mile) Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness in Mendocino, Tehama and Trinity counties serves as the extremely rugged and remote headwaters of the Middle Fork Eel River, South Fork Trinity River, and an important tributary of the Sacramento River, Cottonwood Creek. If you want to get away from it all, or, to at least get away from people, head into the Yolla Bollys where you are almost sure to see more bears than humans.

Hiking the old ridge trail in the Yolla Bolly Wilderness. Photo: R. Scott LaMorte. “Yolla Bolly” means “snow-covered high peaks” in the language of the Wintun Tribe. True to their name, the Yolla Bollys form the high divide between Great Central Valley on the east and the forested ranges of the west, and between the Eel and Sacramento watersheds. Mount Linn, in the southern part of the wilderness, is the highest peak in the California Coast Range at 8,092 feet. North Yolla Bolly Mountain, at 7,863 feet, is the southernmost peak in the Klamath Mountains.

As a transition zone between major mountain ranges and watersheds, the Yolla Bollys are very ecologically diverse, with alpine areas, deep river canyons, slopes swathed in ancient forests of pine, cedar and fir, oak woodlands, chaparral and grasslands. These habitats support a stunning array of plants and animals, including what is possibly the largest black bear population in California and plant species that occur nowhere else on Earth. The Wild and Scenic Middle Fork Eel River hosts between one-third and one-half of California’s entire remaining summer-run steelhead trout population, depending on the year.

The US Forest Service first decided to voluntarily protect the area in 1932, but over the years the agency reduced the protected acreage by 26 percent in order to log parts of the region. In 1964, before any further damage could be done, Congress designated the area as “wilderness,” the highest form of land protection available under federal law, and, with the help of the NEC, expanded the wilderness by 38 percent in 1984 and by another 18 percent in 2006. The wilderness is managed by the Mendocino, Six Rivers and Shasta-Trinity National Forests and the Bureau of Land Management’s Arcata Field Office.

Due to its remoteness and limited road access, the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness receives relatively few visitors. The most popular trails are the River Trail in the southwest, the Pettijohn Trail in the north, and the Ides Cove Loop in the southeast. Still, the wilderness has a devoted following, composed of people who are willing to tolerate long drives over rough roads for solitude and world-class biological diversity. The best guide to the area’s trails is Bob Lorentzen’s The Hiker’s Hip Pocket Guide to the Mendocino Highlands (Bored Feet Press, 1992).



Bear Mountain and Devil’s Punchbowl, Siskiyou Wilderness. Photo: Miguel Vieira, Flickr.com CC.

Year designated: 1984
Unique characteristics:
Fragile mountain meadows, open glades, shallow lakes. One of the world’s largest concentrations of lilies. High conifer diversity. One of the longest continuous crests in the Klamath Mountains region.

Joe Gillespie

From the stunning views of Preston Peak looming over the high Siskiyous, to the lush ancient forests of Blue Creek and the South Fork Smith, the Siskiyou Wilderness encompasses 183,000 acres of a diverse, rare, and unique landscape. Stretching more than forty miles along the Siskiyou Crest, which divides the Smith and Klamath watersheds, its forested headwater streams provide clear, cold water for migrating salmonids that are key to local economic and cultural values.

Collinsia greenei, the host plant for the rare Karin’s checkerspot butterfly, in the Siskiyou Wilderness. Photo: Patrick Alexander, Flickr.com CC.Looking back, the long struggle to gain wilderness protection was a battle to protect ancient forests not only for their own inherent value, but to insure clean flowing water for fish. A battle cry for the Siskiyous became “Stop the G-O Road”, whose unfinished portion would have divided the wilderness, and provided access to massive stands of Douglas fir in Eightmile and Blue Creeks, both coveted by the timber industry. To complicate things more, local native ceremonial peaks such as Dr. Rock and Chimney Rock sat in the middle of these key watersheds. Finishing the road was put on hold until the US Supreme Court could rule on a lawsuit to save these spiritual lands. Rebuked by the court, the road was ultimately stopped and its corridor made wilderness by the Smith River Recreation Area Act of 1990. Meanwhile, 153,000 acres were protected as the Siskiyou Wilderness in 1984, with an additional 30,000 acres added in 2006.

Deceased NEC director Tim McKay was the Siskiyous most ardent advocate, writing key testimony, inspiring others and gathering support. Where the Marbles and Trinities had their “primitive areas” as a foundation, the Siskiyous had Tim. He and then wife Chris started Save Our Siskiyous, which later became Siskiyou Mountains Resources Council. Tim reached out to Yurok and Karuk spiritual leaders and fought tirelessly for protection of their high places. The view from the top would be far different without him.

Now hundreds of people every summer enjoy climbing Preston Peak; botanizing in serpentine fens, mountain meadows, and diverse forests of the High Siskiyous; swimming in the blue waters of majestic Devils Punchbowl; creek walking amongst ancient cedars of the East Fork Blue Creek; and in any season enjoying  the magnificent views of the South Fork Smith from the historic Kelsey Trail; all in the comfort of knowing these wonderful places are protected.

With only 100 miles of trail access, popular areas, such as Devils Punchbowl, are seeing damaging impacts by hosting more visitors than they can sustain, elevating the need for additional trail development. The Siskiyous are also known for those vast, rugged, dense expanses of wilderness not easily reached on foot.  These are the places where you truly get a sense that you are hiking in Bigfoot country.  




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