Friday, January 20, 2012

Joseph Canyon Potential Wilderness Area

The Joseph Canyon Potential Wilderness Area, located in north Wallowa County on the Wallowa Whitman National Forest, includes approximately 40,221 acres of steep, remote canyon country. The "Potential Wilderness Area" boundary includes the Forest Service's official "Inventoried Roadless Area" boundary, plus the additional roadless lands that are contiguous with this boundary. While somewhat technical, the important point is that the Potential Wilderness Area best represents the total extent of the contiguous unroaded lands centered around Joseph Canyon that retain Wilderness quality. Joseph Canyon exemplifies the rugged topography of northeast Oregon's incredible canyon county, characterized by very steep canyons and grass-covered slopes interspersed with numerous exposed basalt layers.
Photo looking north into Swamp Creek toward its confluence with Joseph Creek. Note the fire scar from a 2010 grass fire. Large core habitat areas such as Joseph Canyon are the best remaining natural laboratories to observe the role of natural disturbance processes on unmanaged landscapes. Recent research indicates that large disturbances are a critical factor for ecosystems to adjust to changing climatic conditions.

The map below shows the Joseph Canyon Potential Wilderness Area mapped in orange. The area is fairly well-known, largely because of the Joseph Canyon Viewpoint, a highway pullout 30 miles north of Enterprise that overlooks the 2,000-foot depths of Joseph Canyon and is one of 38 sites that form the Nez Perce National Historical Park ( Joseph Creek drainage was an important travel route for the Nez Perce as they made their seasonal treks between their winter villages along the Grande Ronde and Snake Rivers and summer encampments throughout the Wallowa Valley. The name, "Joseph Canyon" is thought to be derived from the fact that the younger Chief Joseph was born in a cave in the Washington side of Joseph Canyon in Asotin County.
The Joseph Canyon Potential Wilderness Area is comprised of three main drainages: Swamp, Davis and Joseph Creeks. Joseph and Swamp Creeks are designated Wild and Scenic Rivers within the roadless area and the Joseph Canyon Creek system is home to a large population of native Snake River steelhead, listed as threatened under ESA in August 1998. Not shown on the map above is a large piece of BLM land that contains an additional 2 miles of Joseph Creek. This stretch of Joseph Creek on BLM land has been proposed for addition to the existing Wild and Scenic River Designation.

Joseph Canyon is renowned for wildlife and harbors old growth Ponderosa Pine woodlands. It includes the historic Chico Trail and has significant historical value that embraces all of the major peoples that have shaped the region; the Nez Perce Indians; pioneers and settlers, the Forest Service, and backcountry hunters and hikers. The trails have been used since time immemorial.
A recent group of hikers on the Chico Trail observing an old derelict phone line that extended between historic Forest Service Guard Stations, one at Sled Springs, and the other in Swamp Creek. Familes that lived in these remote guard stations hiked the same trails that the Nez Perce hiked to come and go into this remarkable country.

The Joseph Canyon Roadless Area adjoins the Nez Perce Precious Lands Wildlife Area to the north (see figure above and The Precious Lands are 15,000 acres of contiguous “roadless” lands including portions of Joseph Canyon and also adjoin to BLM and State lands to the north. Their protection significantly heightens the conservation value of the Joseph Canyon Roadless Area.

Efforts to gain the interest of U.S. Congressmen were successful in 1983 when the area was included as a part of HB 1149, a wilderness bill sponsored by Congressmen Weaver, Wyden, and AuCoin. It was not, however, included in the Senate version of the 1984 Oregon wilderness bill sponsored by Senator Hatfield.

Natural, ecological and scenic value: Joseph Canyon is a key travel corridor for many wildlife species between the remote Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. This area provides escapement for elk, deer and bear during hunting seasons. Over half of this roadless area is within elk winter range and the northern part within Joseph Creek is used by a herd of bighorn sheep. The many rock cliffs provide nesting for avian species such as peregrine falcon, roosting sites for bats, and unique habitats for other wildlife species (e.g. cougars). Condor historically used Joseph Canyon and one of the historical Nez Perce names for the area was Condor Canyon.” In addition to the breathtaking views from Joseph Canyon Viewpoint, numerous ridges offer both stunning views of the deep canyons and expansive vistas.

Solitude and recreation: Backcountry hunting, horse-back riding, hiking, scenic viewing and camping have long been popular in Joseph Canyon. The rugged country provides challenging opportunities in deep, remote canyons, separated by secluded ridge tops.

After climbing Starvation Ridge, hikers relax and enjoy the view into Swamp Creek.

Threats: Motorized recreation is the greatest threat to Joseph Canyon. It is imperative that the entire Potential Wilderness Area be safeguarded from motorized recreation. However, some alternatives have proposed designating the historic Chico Trail as a motorized route under the Wallowa-Whitman Travel Management Plan.

Solutions: Joseph Canyon is one of the most special landscapes on the entire Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and should be given Wilderness protection. The ongoing Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revisions requires evaluation of the Wilderness quality of all Potential Wilderness Areas and the opportunity for the Forest Service to recommend that Joseph Canyon be protected through Wilderness designation.

For more information about this awesome landscape please contact David Mildrexler at Hells Canyon Preservation Council.

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