Oregon's U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley waded into the effort to expand protection of the lower Rogue River drainage on Thursday by introducing legislation that would add some 60,000 acres of new wilderness area.

Oregon's U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley waded into the effort to expand protection of the Lower Rogue River drainage on Thursday by introducing legislation that would add some 60,000 acres of new wilderness area.

In addition to adding the Zane Grey roadless area to the existing 35,800-acre Wild Rogue Wilderness, the Rogue Wilderness Area Expansion Act of 2011 would protect an additional 93 miles of tributaries that feed into the river renowned for its salmon and steelhead fishery.

A similar bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., was introduced into the House last month. It was co-sponsored by Oregon Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader.

"The Rogue River area is part of the lifeblood of Southern Oregon's recreational economy," Wyden said in a prepared statement. "It attracts thousands of hikers, rafters and outdoor enthusiasts every year and pumps an average of $13 million into the local economy."

Named for the famous writer who fished the Lower Rogue during World War I into the early 1930s, the roadless area is also home to some of Oregon's most important wildlife species, including bear and cougars, Wyden observed.

"These proposed protections emerged from discussions between environmental and business groups who realize protecting Oregon's natural resources like the Rogue is in the best interest of all Oregonians," he added.

Early last spring, following months of negotiations with conservation activists, the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry coalition based in Portland, dropped its opposition to wilderness designation for the Zane Grey roadless tract.

Like Wyden, fellow Democrat Merkley also believes protecting the roadless area will help the local economy in the long run.

"The Rogue River and surrounding wild areas are one of Oregon's true gems — known around the world for world-class fishing and recreation," Merkley said in the release. "This bill will strengthen protection of the Rogue's natural heritage, protect key species, including salmon and steelhead, and bring increased tourism and economic activity to the region."

The Zane Grey roadless area, located on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District, is the largest proposed BLM wilderness area in southwestern Oregon. The roadless area is immediately upstream from the Wild Rogue Wilderness in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

In addition to the 93 miles of tributaries that would receive Wild and Scenic River designation in the legislation, another 50 miles of the river would receive some protection from mining and dam-building for a total of 143 miles of streams being protected.

The area had been proposed for wilderness expansion in the past by members of the Oregon delegation but did not become law.

Beverly Moore, owner of Riverhouse Camp Lodge downstream from Grants Pass, said the bill would help protect a vital part of Josephine County's economy.

"Since the old days of Zane Grey fishing on the river in the 1920s, people have traveled from all over the world to enjoy the Rogue River," she said. "This designation will help ensure that more people and more money come to our county in the future."

Grants Pass resident Dave Strahan, who sells outdoor recreation equipment, agreed.

"Not only does this help salmon, but this legislation is imperative to the outdoor recreation economy of Southern Oregon," he said.

The Rogue River was one of the first rivers in the nation protected by the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. A decade later, Congress created the Wild Rogue Wilderness.

Paul Fattig is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.