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 Molalla 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. Building on the Jawbone Flats mining camp was began 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.
Friends of Opal Creek was established in 1989 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. 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.
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 around 20,000 visitors each year.
To learn more about the conservation battle that led to the creation of the Opal Creek Wilderness Area, look for Showdown at Opal Creek: The Battle for America’s Last Wilderness by David Seideman, editor-in-chief of Audubon Magazine.
The Opal Creek Wilderness and the neighboring Bull of the Woods Wilderness is the largest contiguous area of low-elevation old growth left in Oregon. Opal Creek’s ancient rainforest is a remnant of the forests that once blanketed the Pacific Northwest. This forest once stretched from the Pacific coast to the crest of the Cascades, and from southeast Alaska to the northwest corner of California. The coastal mountains are aligned perpendicularly to the prevailing weather patterns and cause this area to experience unusually heavy rainfall.
Trees and other organisms that are adapted to this unique environment compose a distinctive community that together form the botanical bioregion known as Cascadia. This bioregion has the most diverse moss flora of anywhere in the world. Cascadia includes the world’s most massive forests in terms of standing biomass (the total weight of organisms living in an area), found on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Paleoecologists believe that the prehistoric rainforests of Oregon’s central Cascades were the most massive the world has ever known. At the time of Lewis and Clark, there were Douglas firs in Oregon more massive than the giant Sequoias of California.
Myriad species of vascular plants, lichens, fungi, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles rely on the interrelated web of life that exists here in Opal Creek, and many organisms that are old-growth dependent can be found in this relatively undisturbed watershed.