Harboring a Forest of Fragile Species Unique for Its Biodiversity, the Klamath-Siskiyou Region in the Northwest Is Largely Unprotected from Development

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HIKING up around Rough & Ready Creek in southwest Oregon, along a trail that probably was here before the first white settlers, one gets a lesson in that politically charged term "bio- diversity."

Barbara Ullian, a botanist who grew up in southern Oregon, has compiled a list of more than 200 species of plants here. Many are endemic, which means they grow nowhere else in the world. Noting the fragility of the land during a Saturday hike for environmental activists, government scientists, and wildflower aficionados she says, "Any disturbance of this land takes hundreds of years to heal."

Parts of this beautiful watershed have been nominated as an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern" by the United States Bureau of Land Management. The US Forest Service (the other big public landlord in the West) has determined that the area's "unique botanical and ecological values" may make it worth protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It's in a region the World Conservation Union has identified as one of seven areas in North America (and just 200 in the world) deserving special protection because of its "global botanical significance."

Yet the pressure is on to expand the local airport, which would involve scraping up some of the landscape that is home to rare plant species. A local conservationist recently had to pay $40,000 - 60 percent more than the assessed value - for 10 acres along the creek in order to outbid a developer. And a mining proposal of more than 4,000 acres would involve open-pit gouging of the hillsides for ore. You can already see the heavy equipment tracks where the miner has been testing his claims.

The Rough & Ready Creek watershed is just a slice of one of the most biologically exceptional areas in the United States, the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains of northern California and southern Oregon.Biologists estimate there are more than 3,500 species and subspecies of plants here, including 280 that are rare or endemic. In his book, "Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest," ecologist Elliot Norse calls the region "biologically one of the richest areas of North America, indeed, one of the richest temperate areas in the world." Its 24 species of cone-producing trees make it the most diverse coniferous forest anywhere, and it contains some of the world's richest wildflower sites.

The movement of tectonic plates (the Siskiyous started out as an island off the West Coast that crunched into the Klamaths) and the advance and retreat of weather and geologic patterns over millennia left remnants of different forest communities here.

"Clearly, there was something odd about the Siskiyou forest," David Rains Wallace writes in his classic nature book, "The Klamath Knot."

"For so many species to grow all over a mountain range simply doesn't conform to respectable western life-zone patterns. It is more like some untidy temperate deciduous forest or tropical rain forest, species promiscuously tumbled together without regard for ecological proprieties."

The Siskiyous also are unique in that they run east-west (unlike most North American mountain ranges that run north-south), connecting the Cascade Mountains with the Coast Range along the Pacific.

Ms. Ullian calls the landscape "a remnant of evolutionary history," and Wallace says it is "marked by the wrinkles and leanness of great age ... at heart preglacial mountains, with elements of flora and fauna that reach back farther into the past than any place west of the Mississippi River."

IN terms of biological diversity, the Klamath-Siskiyous are rivaled in North America only by the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. Some of the mountains here are protected by wilderness designation. But unlike the Great Smokies, which are secure in their national-park status, most of the land in the Klamath-Siskiyous is managed by the US Forest Service. …