Jackson County, Oregon
Over the last decade, gateway communities have realized that protecting and restoring their local river encourages recreation, connects the community to the river and creates an economic engine for the region. To illustrate the benefits communities have discovered by protecting and restoring local rivers, American Rivers developed a series of case studies highlighting gateway communities and how they have benefited from local river and land conservation.
Communities in Jackson County, Oregon have come together to accomplish one of the most significant river restoration projects in the country. As a result, the county has cemented its reputation as a world-class outdoor recreation destination, contributing millions of dollars annually to its local economy.
The beloved Rogue River flows through Jackson County in southwestern Oregon before continuing its westerly flow into neighboring Josephine County. People have long lived in this area, as European explorers made first contact with Native American peoples toward the end of the 18th century and pursued beaver trapping across the region.
Clashes between the native residents and trappers, and later between native residents and European-American miners and settlers, marked a difficult historic legacy as these struggles culminated with the Rogue River Wars of 1855–56 and removal of most of the native people to reservations outside the basin. After the war, settlers further expanded into remote areas of the watershed and established small farms along the river between Graves Creek and the confluence with the Illinois River. They were relatively isolated from the outside world until 1895, when the U.S. Post Office Department added mail-boat service along the lower reaches of the Rogue River, more reliably connecting local residents to an evolving world.
But as local populations grew during the 20th Century, much of the Rogue River in both Jackson and Josephine Counties was dammed for irrigation, to generate electricity, and control floods. While these dams once served a purpose, they also blocked formerly-impressive historic salmon runs and diminished many reaches of the Rogue. But today, an aggressive effort to restore the Rogue is well underway as Jackson and Josephine Counties recognize the economic importance of a free-flowing Rogue River.
Today, Jackson County, led by the main population centers of Medford and Ashland, has a population of 210,000. Every town has its own historic and cultural attractions, while outside town limits, recreation is a popular and growing economic driver for the entire region. Both counties rely heavily on the Rogue as a local and regional tourism hotspot.
One of the original eight rivers listed under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the Rogue River is world-renowned for its recreation, ancient old-growth forests, and vibrant plant and animal life. The lower Rogue River and its tributaries provide ecologically valuable habitat for fish and other aquatic species. All five species of Pacific salmon found here — fall and spring chinook, coho, and summer and winter steelhead — depend on the river’s tributaries for spawning, rearing and migration. While salmon runs have recovered and an average of 100,000 salmon and steelhead return to the river each year, efforts continue to bring back more of the native fish that once called the Rogue home.
Over the past century, a series of dams constructed along the Rogue and its tributaries blocked fish passage and degraded habitat. However, in 2008, Jackson County communities embarked on one of the most significant river restoration projects in the country.
A coalition of groups, including the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, municipalities, and conservation organizations, are working to restore native fish species and protect water quality. To date, six dams have been removed, opening 157 miles of river below Lost Creek Lake near Medford to the mouth of the Rogue at the Pacific Ocean.
“Restoration through dam removal on the Rogue River is leading efforts both locally and across the country to restore free flowing rivers by removing these antiquated barriers. Communities in the Rogue Valley have initiated these historic actions and have seen direct, positive results. We are proud of our efforts and hopeful that others are following suit,” says Robyn Janssen, Rogue Riverkeeper.
While a fully restored Rogue River will take years to accomplish, success has already been noted, with the river quickly coming back to life, finding its channel, and providing new habitat for salmon and diverse wildlife.
Transformation to Popular Outdoor Recreation Destination
Restoration efforts along the Rogue have also resulted in world-class recreational opportunities for fishing, whitewater rafting, and hiking. Dam removal has allowed for better river access and more recreational opportunities for residents and visitors alike.
With the dam completed removals, paddlers are able to enjoy longer floats and link together calmer upstream waters with more adventurous downstream stretches. Family-friendly recreation, such as flat water paddling and stand up paddle boarding, is on the rise in previously impounded stretches.
New fishing opportunities have appeared with improved populations of salmon fueling a recreational and economic revival along the Rogue.
“It is amazing to see a river, once blocked by a 40 foot tall dam be restored to its original path and fill with salmon where that dam once stood,” says Robyn Janssen.
In fact, in just two years after the Gold Ray Dam removal in 2010, the number of people recreating along the river increased by 17%. Commercial raft trips, as well as improved fishing, picnicking, and leisure activities have experienced consistent growth since the dams were removed. Guided fishing trip bookings increased by 8% and commercial recreation businesses have reported growth.
The Rogue attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually, contributing over $30 million and nearly 450 full and part-time jobs to the local economy. Restored river reaches provide important salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing habitat, serving as the backbone for one of Oregon’s most important sport and commercial fisheries.
The designation of the Rogue River as a National Wild and Scenic River has contributed to the long-term economic growth in southwestern Oregon. It is likely that increased federal protection of critical tributaries to the wild Rogue would not only have positive short-term economic effects, but would further enhance long-term economic benefits to Josephine County and the State of Oregon. Efforts like these clearly demonstrate how rural communities have protected and restored their river, and as a result have become popular outdoor recreation and eco-tourism destinations.