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Opal Creek Wilderness History & Facts

The wilderness was designated September 30, 1996 after a nearly twenty year battle to protect the area from logging and mining.

In 1980, the District Ranger of the Detroit Ranger District, Dave "Chainsaw" Alexander, vowed to "cut Opal Creek." By late 1981, clearcut boundary markers were placed. Lawsuits were filed, scenic rivers were designated, and multiple bills to protect the area failed, including an attempt to make it a state park.

When books and photo essays were published in the early 1990s, national attention was brought to the area. Finally, the retiring senator Mark Hatfield's last act in office passed and the area was protected.

The Opal Creek Forest was first inhabited by Native Americans. Points and lithic scatter dating back at least 2,000 years have been found across the watershed. The site that is now Jawbone Flats is believed to have been a summer camp for the Santiam Kalapuya Indians. Whetstone Mountain may have been a place where Native Americans retreated for vision quests. The Whetstone Mountain Trail, which crosses the valley,  is believed to have been a frequent trade route for area tribes.

Part of the forest has survived two forest fires, estimated to have occurred around 1550 and 1835. Forest fires in old-growth forests are rarely totally devastating. In this forest, many of the big trees survived, particularly those located in cool, wet places along the area's hundreds of streams.


In 1859, miners arrived in the valley and discovered gold. The Jawbone Flats mining camp was built beginning in 1930 by "Grandpa" James P. Hewitt, a relative of the Atiyeh family, who mined lead, zinc, copper and silver. Some of the mining roads and the Gold Creek Bridge were constructed in 1939 under President Roosevelt's New Deal. In 1992, mining ceased and the Shiny Rock Mining Company gave Friends Of Opal Creek a land gift valued at $12.6 million. Included were 151 acres of land: Jawbone Flats and a stand of old-growth forest.

Friends Of Opal Creek was established in 1989 to lead the effort to secure permanent protection of the Opal Creek ecosystem by increasing public understanding of the natural and cultural resources, scenic beauty, plant and animal diversity, and ecological complexity of this extraordinary area.

This effort culminated in October 1996 with the establishment, through federal legislation, of the 20,827 acre Opal Creek Wilderness, the 13,538 acre Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area and a 3,066 acre Wild and Scenic River designation for Elkhorn Creek. Except for Jawbone Flats, the Opal Creek Act required that all privately owned lands be returned to public ownership. Friends returned other donated lands and mining claims in the Opal Creek protected area to public ownership, as did other landowners. The Opal Creek forest has received international attention and is enjoyed by over 50,000 visitors each year.

Our organization changed its name to Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center in 2005 to reflect our evolving mission of education and stewardship.

If you want to learn more about the history of the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, look for the book Showdown at Opal Creek, The Battle for America's Last Wilderness by David Seideman, current editor of Audubon Magazine and a former reporter for Time. Showdown is currently out of print but available at libraries around the country.

For more information contact: The Willamette National Forest.

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