A California Time Capsule : Pristine Version of State Awaits in Smith River Recreation Area

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No, it's not pronounced Gas - KET . It is GAS-key , and it's nothing more than settlement along U.S. 199 in the northwest corner of California in Del Norte County--which the natives call Del Nort , not Del Nor-tay .

Foreign influence here is minimal--foreign meaning any other part of California. Formal is wearing anything shinier than jeans to dinner.

Want to see how California was before all the people came? Want to see a water ouzel?

Go to Del Norte at the edge of the redwood empire, with deserted beaches, free-flowing streams, trees thicker than tropical forests, only 23,460 residents and a good chance to stay that way.

The water ouzel (Cinclus mexicanus) , also known as the American dipper, is a little bird that walks under water, feeding on insects. No joke.

It's part of "California's best-kept secret," a slogan sometimes used here to lure visitors, which has been a problem. No interstates run through--only U.S. 101 along the coast and U.S. 199 diagonally to Grants Pass, Ore., 85 miles northeast of Crescent City, the county seat. Air travel is limited and expensive, and if you aren't fishing the Smith River for salmon or steelhead, there isn't much else to do but snap pictures.

That, residents hope, is changing. Last Nov. 16, President Bush signed legislation establishing the Smith River National Recreation Area, shifting the focus for 305,337 acres--about 477 square miles--from logging to leisure activities. The shift is especially felt by the U.S. Forest Service folks in the Six Rivers National Forest, who instead of projecting profits in board feet are now thinking in terms of fishing, camping, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and kayaking.

"Our timing for this NRA is beautiful," said Karen Jo Caldwell, the acting district ranger. "There's a national public cry for more recreation emphasis, and Congress is hearing that."

Forester Dave Webb said, "Congress has directed us to be an example for other areas. They want us to be a showcase."

A dedication ceremony, including an antique car rally and some of the other activities mentioned above, is scheduled at Gasquet the weekend of May 10-11. Speakers will include former Rep. Doug Bosco, who initiated the legislation for the recreation area. Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson sponsored it in the U.S. Senate, and the ad hoc Smith River Alliance and CalTrout lobbied for it.

Bosco and the northern spotted owl, listed federally as a threatened species, get equal credit. The owl, whose favorite neighborhoods are old-growth forests, started it all as the star of confrontations between loggers and environmentalists in recent years. More than a third of the recreation area--118,000 acres--is declared a habitat conservation area, with logging prohibited to protect his home.

The owl fared better than Bosco. Two weeks after Bush signed the act, Bosco became extinct--voted out of his Congressional seat.

The other main effects of the act will be to ensure that no dams will ever be built on the last major undammed river system in the state, logging will be eliminated in the 315 miles of wild and scenic river corridors in the watershed to avoid polluting the streams, and all mining will be shut down, except for existing rights.

According to the CalTrout newsletter, the act is "the salvation of the state's most important trophy Chinook salmon and steelhead trout stream."

State records for both species were taken from the Smith.

In up to 80% of the area, the act takes the Forest Service out of the logging business--an undeniable blow to the Del Norte community.

"There's an economy that's dependent on that," Caldwell said.

Without logging, the 25% of gross revenue collected from timber sales for roads and schools under a 1908 law will eventually disappear. The federal government will compensate with entitlement payments for the first two years, but those will be reduced 10% each year for the next 10 years until they are totally phased out. By that time, Del Norte would hope to establish a recreation-supported economy.

"This is something that had to happen," said Mike Finley, a former president of the Crescent City Chamber of Commerce. He owns a store and gas station on 199, a good highway that meanders along the river as a designated National Scenic Byway.

"This part of the county is in an environmental state right now," Finley said. "If they do what they say they're going to do, they'll put in more recreation facilities that could bring more people. (Now) we get about an eighth of the traffic they get on 101."

The trick will be to get California tourists to turn right on 199, which bisects the recreation area, instead of continuing on into Oregon.

Among national recreation areas, the Smith is unique.

"We already had developed a management plan and it became part of the legislation," Caldwell said.

But the act provided no funds.

"We're ready to go," Caldwell said. "We have a lot of ideas. We just need to get the dollars behind it. We have historically been funded heavily by Congress for producing timber and received relatively little dollars for recreation."

This year the Gasquet Ranger District's budget is about the same as before--$2.3 million--but more will be used to help develop the recreation area.

Webb said, "People are asking for more investment in recreation, (but) we're not expecting thousands of people banging on our door because this act was signed. Most NRAs have some sort of large recreational attraction (such as) a big lake or skiing. We're offering a wide range of dispersed sites of recreational opportunities."

There are no ski resorts in Del Norte County. Although it is one of the wettest places in the world, averaging about 100 inches a year, the highest point is only 6,424 feet, so the precipitation is nearly all rain and little snow.

Most of that water eventually runs down the Smith and into the ocean. Someone calculated that the volume at normal flows was enough to provide every person in the United States with 300 gallons per day.

There also aren't any pack outfitters, no white-water rafting operations, only five campgrounds, and the largest motel--the Ship Ashore a few miles north of Crescent City--has 60 rooms.

Is the recreation area just a dream?

Caldwell said, "This is the first national legislation that has set aside an entire river system. A lot of them are not intact anymore. To find an entire river system that hasn't been dammed or manipulated in some form is unique."

Del Norte has survived tough times before. A 1964 flood and tidal wave wiped out downtown Crescent City, but it rebuilt and dubbed itself "Comeback City USA."

In 1989, after logging had declined, Pelican Bay Prison, a state maximum security facility, was built, providing more than 2,000 jobs and adding another 2,000 involuntary citizens to the population.

Del Norte also is known as the "Easter Lily Capital of the World" because it grows 90% of the world's bulbs.

"The access into this area for the large draw is difficult," Caldwell said. "But for the dedicated two- to three-week traveler who wants to do the whole scene, it's a beautiful destination.

"We're going to be in a honeymoon period for the first few years. Now is the time for us to say, 'We'll show you what we can do.' "

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