Committee approves Soda Mountain Wilderness

A bill that would end cattle grazing while creating a wilderness area in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was unanimously approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday.

The bill would provide a one-time buyout of cattle ranchers who have grazing leases in the monument as well as establish a 24,100-acre Soda Mountain Wilderness.

Oregon's U.S. Sens. Gordon Smith, a Republican, and Democrat Ron Wyden introduced the bill, which is the result of four years of negotiations.

In a prepared statement, Smith said the bill was a "fair, common-sense solution" that would keep the issue out of the courts. Wyden called it "a homegrown solution that protects one of the most ecologically diverse areas in North America."

But in the House, 2nd District Congressman Greg Walden, a Republican, announced Wednesday that he would introduce a bill authorizing $2 million to provide funding for the grazing buyout. Under his bill, the wilderness would be established when the ranchers were fully compensated.

Walden supports the goals contained in the Senate version but wanted to make sure funding was available for the buyout, explained spokesman Andrew Whelan.

The Senate bill doesn't authorize a funding amount. The federal payments were removed from the bill because of opposition from Senate leaders in both parties on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, according to Wyden's office.

"Where I grew up, a handshake is as good as a contract. In Washington, D.C., I've learned that you better get it in writing," Walden said in a press release.

Wyden's chief of staff, Josh Kardon, took issue with Walden's comments.

"That's a pretty hard shot at Senator Smith, who is the lead sponsor of the bill," Kardon told The Associated Press. "With friends like Greg I'm not sure Gordon needs (Democratic opponents Steve) Novick and (Jeff) Merkley."

There are 11 ranchers with grazing leases allowing 2,714 active animal unit months in the monument. An AUM is the amount of forage needed for one cow and calf for a month.

The buyout would include funding from Uncle Sam and the conservation community on a 60-40 split, explained one of the negotiators, rancher Bob Miller of Hornbrook, whose family has a historic grazing lease on the monument.

"We ranchers support the Smith-Wyden bill &

we've been negotiating over it for a long time," Miller said. "We also appreciate what Walden is doing. We just hope the House and Senate can come to an agreement. We want to get this done."

Dave Willis, chairman of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, which has pushed for the creation of the wilderness for decades, said the Senate bill protects the monument's ecologically diverse Soda Mountain back country.

"The bill also creates the opportunity to end cattle damage to both public lands and private property in the monument area by enabling us to pay ranchers privately for donating their commercial grazing leases to BLM for permanent retirement," he added.

The roughly 53,000-acre monument is located in the mountains immediately southeast of Ashland within the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District.

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