By Michael H. Kew
For the Oregon Beer Growler
“Horrific what could’ve happened here.”
James Smith — brewmaster, fly fisher, naturalist — nods at Hunter Creek, just 20 feet from us, flowing fast and rain-fat this cold, late-January Sunday. Ten minutes ago, in his tiny taproom, Smith topped our tulips with his Adipose IPA, an Arch Rock Brewing Company seasonal. Now outside, behind Smith’s brewhouse, we’re dodging rain, cramped in the gray light of his boiler room.
Smith is happy. Ten days earlier, U.S. Department of the Interior’s Janice Schneider signed a 20-year decree protecting Southwest Oregon sites threatened by strip mining — 101,000 public acres governed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
“This represents a tremendous grassroots victory,” Mark Sherwood, beer fan and executive director of Native Fish Society, later told me by phone. “It’ll safeguard water quality and habitats for more than a dozen wild salmon and steelhead populations. A huge step forward in terms of local river stewardship. We’re thrilled.”
Schneider’s pen reflected three years of core community activism to block industrial mining plans in the Rough and Ready Creek/Baldface Creek and Hunter Creek/North Fork Pistol River watersheds.
“This area is advertised as the Wild Rivers Coast, right?” Smith tells me, twirling an index finger. “Since the logging industry is not what it once was, we rely on tourism — Arch Rock does, along with most businesses here. Nobody really wants a British mining company to arrive, scalp our headwaters, make a bunch of money and leave.”
He’s referring to Red Flat Nickel Corporation, a subsidiary of St. Peter Port Capital in Guernsey, an island in the English Channel, 5,000 miles from Curry and Josephine Counties, where the 101,000 acres lie.
“In 2013, my friend Dave Lacey heard of the proposed nickel mines and approached Arch Rock to locally start petitions and spread the word,” Smith says. “Our community was overwhelmingly against mining. You could just ask people if they swam in these rivers, if they fished in them and so forth. Also, here at the brewery, it’s imperative that I have clean water. Otherwise, I can’t make beer.”
The Adipose we’re drinking (James, may I have a refill?) has an additional tie to the area’s waterways.
“I’ve caught wild chinook and steelhead right here,” Smith says, pointing to the brambly, alder-lined banks. “The adipose fin means a lot to me because hatcheries clip them. That’s how you can tell if a fish is farmed or wild. With my IPA name, I try to bring awareness to wild fish, and I like to play around with the beer. It’s kind of wild in the sense that it’s my creativity.”
A half-mile west, Hunter Creek meets the Pacific, less than two miles from the mouth of the Rogue, a federal Wild and Scenic River. Before us is a small weedy lot poised to be Arch Rock’s tranquil beer garden, with views of wooded hills soundtracked by birdsong and the chattering creek. (Arch Rock is buying the adjacent property, too — expansion for fermenters, barrels and a pub.)
“We wondered how we could leverage beer-brewing toward helping save these watersheds,” Sherwood said during our phone call. “Unique water types all over the world have created great beers. Local water is vital. We thought we could form a community of breweries here willing to say how essential it is.”
Sherwood, Smith, Lacey and Smith River Alliance’s Sunny Bourdon launched the Wild Rivers, Wild Brews Coalition, including 16 breweries from Southwest Oregon. “It’s such a great fraternity of brewers,” Sherwood said. “They’re passionate about their environments and the beers they make. They get it.”
In 2015, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley plus Rep. Peter DeFazio and California Rep. Jared Huffman designed the Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act, legislation to permanently protect the fragile watersheds, exempting them from the General Mining Act, a 145-year-old law giving ore mining priority over all other uses of federal land.
“Because the senators and congressmen knew their legislation wouldn’t pass in one year, and that there was an acute threat from strip mining,” Sherwood said, “with the support of the brewery coalition and city councils and elected officials, they were able to ask, on behalf of their constituents, that the USFS and BLM enact what’s called a temporary ‘mineral withdrawal,’ removing the watersheds from the 1872 Mining Act.”
Back on Hunter Creek with the tulip of Adipose IPA: “The way politics are,” Smith says, “it takes so long to get anything approved or disapproved, so these next 20 years serve as a buffer, giving us time to figure out how exactly these areas should be permanently protected without restricting access.”
In 2015 and 2016, the USFS and BLM held public hearings in Gold Beach, Brookings and Grants Pass. “Those hearings were packed,” Sherwood told me. “When James spoke about beer, he emphasized how critical clean water is — for not just Arch Rock, but for all breweries, and the beer industry is a big deal in Oregon.”
Out alongside Hunter Creek, the wind whips. Another cold front is pushing ashore. The sky sinks lower, darker. We watch hail pelt the roiling creek. Leaning against the open boiler room door, Smith continues.
“Throughout history,” he says, watching birds fly by, “people have rallied and things have gotten started in taverns and breweries. You don’t hear of people rallying at their local coffee shop, do you? People rally behind their local brewery. Beer truly brings us together.”
Arch Rock Brewing Co.
28779 Hunter Creek Loop, Gold Beach
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.