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.
And although the Forest Service now is pushing ``ecosystem management'' and greater protection for the habitat of endangered species like the northern spotted owl (which is found throughout the Klamath-Siskiyous), it also has a ``multiple use'' mandate - including logging and mining.
``This is a real gee-whiz place, but there's no park status for any of its land,'' says Steve Marsden, director of the Siskiyou Regional Education Project and a longtime activist who has confronted bulldozers carving out new logging roads.
More than a century of resource extraction and other forms of development have left their mark on the forest here.
The Port Orford cedar, unique to southwest Oregon and northwest California is being attacked by a water-borne root fungus that was introduced and is being spread by bulldozers, log trucks, and other equipment. Ullian calls the cedar a ``keystone species'' because of its importance to other species, particularly wild salmon.
The Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion has five rivers designated by the federal government as ``wild and scenic.''
But last year, the conservation group American Rivers listed two of these, the Rogue River and its main tributary, the Illinois River, among 10 ``endangered'' rivers around the United States.
``Since 1940, the Rogue's anadromous [ocean-migrating] stocks have been in general decline,'' American Rivers reported. ``Chum salmon runs are now extinct. The wild coho of the upper Rogue is one of many severely endangered coastal coho runs. Summer steelhead in the lower Rogue, sea run cutthroat trout and fall chinook salmon are all considered to be threatened by the American Fisheries Society.''
Erosion and sedimentation caused by logging and log-road building are main culprits, along with several government-built dams for irrigation. The resulting silt, unnaturally warm water, and disrupted river flows ``are devastating the habitat critical to salmon survival,'' the organization warned.
TWENTY years ago some 3,200 steelhead (a species of migrating trout) were caught each year on the Illinois River; last year the catch was 177. ``To us, the steelhead is one of the best indicators of how we're taking care of inland waters,'' Mr. Marsden says. ``It's the real canary in the mine.''
Meanwhile, conservationists are working to influence federal government plans for timber production.
The Forest Service plans to allow selective logging of 9.5 million board-feet of timber in a part of the Illinois Valley called Sugarloaf. Siskiyou National Forest supervisor Mike Lunn has called it ``a scientifically sound timber sale'' that will involve helicopters instead of ground-damaging equipment.
A Forest Service document states: ``Forest officials believe the stands following harvest will continue to perform the vital ecosystem functions of connectivity, habitat for older forest-associated wildlife species, watershed protection, and high quality water for fish. [The area] will be less susceptible to insects, disease, and wildfire. There will be virtually no change in the roadless area character due to the way the sale is planned.''
Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts (D) is against the timber sale, and the Siskiyou Regional Education Project recently took out full-page ads in local newspapers to generate opposition to logging the group says will include 700-year-old trees.
The environmental group recently received a grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation for a biodiversity study of the Klamath-Siskiyou region to be conducted by noted conservation biologist Reed Noss. The hope is to achieve more public recognition and eventually more protection through federal legislation.
To many people, an area as unique as the Siskiyous involves more than logging or spotted owls.
``Those places are sacred,'' says activist Lou Gold, whose talk and slide show ``Lessons From the Ancient Forest'' has been presented more than 600 times around the country over the past eight years. ``Even during a war, you protect the cathedrals and the museums.''