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Opal Creek Wilderness: Protected And Ready For Visitors

There's only one way into the old mining town of Jaw Bone Flats, Oregon.  You've got to go south of Mount Hood and then hike 3 miles into the middle of the Opal Creek Wilderness.

The area was at one time the subject of bitter debate between timber interests and conservationists. Until — 11 years ago when Congress decided to set aside the Opal Creek Wilderness as protected forest.

OPB's Vince Patton went out with the Oregon Field Guide crew to see how the forest has changed and he filed this report for OPB News.

Opal CreekStreams always run crystal clear in the Opal Creek Wilderness.

That clarity is assured because the entire valley watershed — ridgetop to ridgetop — is off limits to human development.

Tom Atiyeh: "Right in front of us is exactly an ancient forest."

Tom Atiyeh is leading this hike. He's the son of former Oregon governor Vic Atiyeh.

Tom Atiyeh: "You've got western red cedar, there, there. You've got Douglas fir, next to western hemlock.
This is 35,000 acres of old growth."

These days, Atiyeh directs the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center.  Throughout the 80's and 90's, it was his family that lead the drive to protect this land from logging.

Tom Atiyeh: "Now we have the responsibility for stewardship. As a bunch of rabble rousers, we could say, 'We want it preserved for wilderness!'   Well, thanks to Senator Hatfield  we got wilderness.  And we go, 'Okay, now that we've got it, what are we going to do with it?'"

Now the activists have turned educators.

Adam Mims: "Oh, Here's one here's one.  See him? They're really fast swimmers."

Adam Mims leads a pack of eager second graders from Cityview Charter School in Hillsboro. The kids are getting to  see and touch wild giant coastal salamanders.

Adam Mims: "Most of what we're going to catch today either breathes through their skin or they have little gills.  So they're actually getting their oxygen from the water."

In many parts of the Cascades amphibian numbers are declining.  But not here in Opal Creek.

Adam Mims: "And these guys can live for 35 or 40 years."

Girl: "Whoa!"

Adam Mims: "Yea! It's a real neat thing that's going on up here. What we do and just the setting's amazing…all the clear water…the huge trees."

Mims not only teaches at the forest center, as facilities director, he lives here full time.

In his spare hours he's helped rebuild Jaw Bone Flats. That's the old mining town that now serves as education central.

TrilliumThe old commissary, where miners stored dynamite and drill bits,  now houses a classroom and laboratory — complete with solar panels.

Adam Mims: "it's great because we have the greatest outdoor classroom and now when we get back from the field we'll have this spectacular indoor space."

Nearby four cabins sleep up to 16 people. They're all outfitted with comfortable beds, running water and flush toilets. But no phones and no TV.

Jaw Bone Flats generates its own electricity with mountain runoff. The water is diverted from uphill.

Adam Mims: "Then this generator is making all the power for the camp.  Right now we're making almost 10 kilowatts of power, which is a lot for us."

After the water flows past the generator's wheel, Mims leans over and does something most don't dare to do in the forest:  he scoops up some of the runoff and takes a drink.

Adam Mims: "Really clear water. Again, because of the intact eco-system up above it. All the moss, all the trees, everything filters that water as it comes down."

Opal Creek's supporters want people to visit.

They encourage people to see what's been saved. And they want people to know that what happens here has an impact — even in the cities of the Willamette Valley.

Adam Mims: "It's Salem's drinking water!  Consider if people wanted to cut in the Bull Run.  You know, that's Portland's drinking water."

For now Opal Creek remains protected — as long as federal law is in place.

Adam Mims: "It's been saved, but you know, you always have to be the watchdog."

More people than ever are watching. The Forest Service estimates 40,000 people now visit Opal Creek each year.

If you'd like to see the beautiful Opal Creek wilderness, you can catch Vince Patton's story on Oregon Field Guide . It airs Thursday night at 8:30 on the television stations of OPB.

Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center  

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