DEVIL'S STAIRCASE — Josh Laughlin emerged at Wassen Creek after an hours-long jaunt through a sprawling thicket of sword ferns, huckleberry bushes and rhododendron trees.
He had scrambled across makeshift bridges made from downed Douglas fir. He slid down moss-concealed rock faces that threatened to send him tumbling headlong into the snapped-off limb of a Western red cedar. He eyed a footlong Pacific giant salamander, a creature so rare some of the researchers who study it for a living have never before seen one. He cocked his head and shushed his crew to listen uninterrupted to the complicated warble of the winter wren, piercing the quiet.
So much quiet. This 30,000-acre paradise squeezed between the Smith and Umpqua rivers in the heart of the Coast Range sees maybe 100 human visitors a year. Laughlin won't glimpse a soul outside of his hiking group during nine long hours on the trail, which is partly what makes the payoff of his brutal descent to Wassen Creek so priceless.
Here, at the nadir of a steep, roadless and forbidding 1,800-foot canyon, drowning out all ambient noise, is the rush of a glistening waterfall known as the Devil's Staircase, cascading over sandstone-carved pools large enough to swim in, a jewel of algae-covered bedrock spotted only by a few intrepid travelers.
The staircase earns its moniker because one can climb up its many ledges when the water is low enough. This is a piece of Oregon to which no trail leads. No roads cut through the ridges towering above it. Only after a grueling four-mile hike, with a keen eye on a compass, can this staircase be discovered.
If Laughlin and his cohorts succeed at their mission, it will stay that way.
"This is an area that has managed to elude industrial forestry for the past 50 years," says Laughlin, conservation director of Cascadia Wildlands, a Eugene-based nonprofit agency that works to protect the area's wild ecosystems. "It's the last remnant of what the Coast Range once looked like."
Efforts to protect the Siuslaw National Forest and Bureau of Land Management-owned wilderness from logging date to 1984, when the Cummins Creek and Drift Creek wilderness areas were designated by Congress in an attempt to set aside some of the state's remaining primitive old-growth forest. The staircase fell off that bill, and it remains today as one of the state's last native forests.
In part, the region has been spared the chain saw because it's so inaccessible. Andy Stahl, executive director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, has seen the waterfall twice, the first time in 1983 and the second in 2007. Little has changed during that period, he said.
"For three days we saw no evidence that any person had ever been where we had gone" on that first hike, Stahl said. "There was not a candy wrapper, fire ring, boot mark, nothing. One still gets that feeling. If there's any place in Oregon that evokes wilderness, it's the Devil's Staircase."
Still, with the advent of new ways to pull trees out of forests and the increasing scarcity of timber this valuable and robust, it's not hard to imagine a cash-strapped government agency deciding to let an ambitious logger have a go at the region.
In 1982, the Siuslaw National Forest proposed a timber sale that would have led to a 400-acre clear-cut in the heart of the roadless area, a plan that was scrapped after conservationists won a court injunction on the grounds that the canyon's slopes were too unstable to safely access.
And just two years ago, a 5,000-acre section of the wilderness area made it into the draft of the Western Oregon Plan Revision, a controversial document drafted by the Bureau of Land Management that conservationists say presents a grave threat to the state's old-growth forests. The staircase wilderness was eventually removed from the draft.
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio is one of the few hearty souls to have navigated his way through the brush-choked canyons and laid eyes on Wassen Creek, which winds its way from headwaters at Lake Wassen 17 miles to the Smith River, a few miles north of Reedsport. DeFazio called his 2007 trip into the wilderness "the hardest hike I've ever been on. I was on my hands and knees getting up to the first ridge. It's a wild spot, and yes, it should be designated as wilderness."
DeFazio said he plans to introduce a bill to declare the staircase a federal wilderness area and to deem Wassen and Franklin Creeks wild and scenic rivers, which would make the region off-limits to logging and other impacts. He's optimistic it will sail through Congress.
"I think there should be very little controversy about this," he said. "It fully qualifies as wilderness, and I don't think the timber industry is going to be going in there anytime soon, since they didn't during the heyday of the timber industry."
This is exactly what Laughlin and fellow conservationists are seeking — a Congressional designation — and they say this is the time to do it, given Democrats' control in Washington, D.C.
"The stars are aligned," Laughlin said. "This is the time to permanently protect the best of what's left."
Only 4 percent of Oregon's land base is set aside as wilderness today, compared to 15 percent in California and 12 percent in Washington.
The staircase is home to the coast's highest density of spotted owls, who mingle with bald eagles, black bears, river otters, elk, deer, raccoon and bobcats. Wassen also provides spawning ground for endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout.
Since they first hiked the wilderness in 2007, Dave and Dee Tvedts have led several groups to Wassen Creek. Dave figures they've spent 40 days there, in all. The old trees are striking, Dave said, but so is the sheer diversity of plants on the forest floor.
"The area is incredibly diverse," he said. "We keep finding fascinating, interesting things down there."
On the Net:
Cascadia Wildlands: http:www.cascwild.org/
Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics: http:www.fseee.org/
Siuslaw National Forest: http:www.fs.fed.us/r6/siuslaw/
Western Oregon Plan Revisions: http:www.blm.gov/or/plans/wopr/