Nearly 28,000 acres of the Elk River drainage east of Port Orford would be designated a salmon emphasis area in a proposal scheduled to be announced today by sports fishing and conservation groups.

Nearly 28,000 acres of the Elk River drainage east of Port Orford would be designated a salmon emphasis area in a proposal announced Friday by sports fishing and conservation groups.

The plan also calls for designating 22 miles of the river and its tributaries as wild and scenic.

Known as the Elk River Salmon Emphasis Area, it would be considered for special "back country management" to safeguard its salmon and steelhead waters, said Shady Cove resident Mike Beagle, field coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Oregon.

"This proposal is reasonable as well as responsible," Beagle said, noting the watershed is one of the state's top producers of salmon and steelhead. "It would allow the Forest Service to continue to manage the area, for thinning or for disease, but the management focus would be for the big fish."

Protecting the watershed's fishery is vital to both the local and regional economy, added Jim Rogers, a professional forester from Port Orford.

"The Elk River drainage is the economic lifeblood of coastal Southern Oregon," he said. "And that's because it still sees strong annual returns of salmon and steelhead, and upstream habitat is still healthy and productive for spawning and rearing."

The coalition supporting it, which includes some 16 groups, will present the proposal to Oregon's U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, as well as U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Springfield whose 4th Congressional District includes Oregon's south coast.

The proposal would also designate about 22 miles of the Elk River and its tributaries as part of the national Wild and Scenic Rivers system.

It also calls for removing a massive culvert on Blackberry Creek, opening up two miles of spawning and rearing habitat for salmon and steelhead.

Pouring into the Pacific Ocean a few miles north of Port Orford, the Elk River watershed flows out of the coastal mountains.

The river system is in the western portion of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which receives about 150 inches of rain annually and contains the Grassy Knob and Copper-Salmon wilderness areas.

Including the existing wilderness areas, the entire salmon emphasis area would total about 59,380 acres, Beagle noted.

Dave Schott, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association, declined to comment specifically about the proposal until he had a chance to study it. But he noted the timber community is always concerned when more restrictions are placed on public lands.

However, unlike a wilderness area, rules for the additional 28,000 acres would permit the use of vehicles and equipment such as chainsaws for forest management, Beagle said.

"A wilderness area would be much more restrictive than what we are proposing," he said. "There are already old plantations in it. Thinning would be allowed. There wouldn't be a sign saying 'Back Country.' Basically, what the designation would do is keep the watershed intact."

Keeping the drainage intact would protect the fishery, said veteran fishing guide Mark Kimball, owner of the Steelblue Chameleon Lodge in Port Orford.

"In this part of rural Oregon, we depend heavily on the ocean-going fish that return to the Elk River every year," he said. "If we can make sure the entire drainage remains healthy, we'll always have a dependable economic resource in the salmon and steelhead that begin and end their lives in this amazing place."

In 2009, efforts by a similar coalition, including Northwest Guides and Anglers Association, Rogue Flyfishers and Association of Northwest Steelheaders, led to the creation of the roughly 14,000-acre Copper-Salmon Wilderness area. That effort was supported by the Port Orford Chamber of Commerce as well as the Curry County Board of Commissioners.

The Grassy Knob Wilderness, covering some 17,200 acres, was created in 1984.

"The Copper Salmon was the first sportsmen-led wilderness in Oregon history," noted Beagle, one of the leaders in that 2009 effort.

"Managing a whole watershed for big fish is also unique," he added. "But our point is that it will help Oregon's economy, whether it involves sports fishing or commercial fishing."

For more information on the proposal, see www.sportsmenfortheelk.org.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.