Much gained, much to still attain

You never know where you'll be.

Chaparral. In Douglas Fir. Oak Savannah. Ponderosa Pine.

"You never know what you'll find," says Dave Willis.

When Willis first attended a public meeting held by the Bureau of Land Management seeking input about 5,000 or so acres, it was 1983, before the creation of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council. A number of those attending the early meetings had a goal of protecting a chunk of southern Oregon Wilderness. The goal took on more urgency as ecologists realized just how important the area is. It's considered the most botanically-diverse coniferous eco-region in North America &

perhaps even the world.

The Rogue Valley's oak savannah habitat stretches south to meet the Mediterranian-style chaparral emanating from Shasta Valley in northern California. The arid sagebrush terrain of the Great Basin sneaks in from the east while the cooler coastal type of forest converges from the west through the Siskiyou range.

"It all whorls together in this relatively small area," Willis says. "It's a Noah's ark of diversity. This little land bridge &

from Mt. Ashland to Pilot Rock to Soda Mountain &

is a really important connector to the Cascades and the rest of the West."

He uses that metaphor, describing the Klamath-Siskiyou eco-region as the ark, and what came to be designated as a national monument area as the loading dock.

After years of toil, striving to preserve the dwindling southern Oregon wilderness, being whittled away through timber sales, off-road vehicle use and commercial cattle grazing, the council had a victory in 2000. That was the year then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt recommended that former President Bill Clinton designate the area as a national monument. It came to be.

To celebrate that achievement, the council is throwing a birthday bash June 2 along with a month of dates set aside for specially-led hikes to explore the region's uniqueness. The monument designation has been one of the more significant elements in halting the fragmentation of southern Oregon's wilderness. Biologists concur that fragmenting wilderness areas interferes with wildlife survival.

"And we're reminding people we need to make it a monument in more than name only," Willis says, warning about complacency.

Babbitt gave the BLM oversight of the monument, but the council believes its management plan falls woefully &

and legally &

short of its protection mandate. Willis said the BLM has made some baby steps toward protection, but that much more needs to be done, including more road closure and retiring cattle grazing.

"This administration refuses to take (protection) seriously, and frankly, we're not happy about the government making citizens do its job," he says.

According to council figures, the BLM gets a paltry $4,000 a year to let hundreds and hundreds of cows graz the monument land, a figure that breaks down to a monthly rate of $1.35 per each cow and calf for them to eat, poop and degrade the water streams. The $4,000 doesn't begin to pay for clean-up efforts, Willis says.

Of course cattle ranchers have long held a vastly different view of the matter than that espoused by the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council. But in recent years, the two parties have come together and helped develop a compromise that could bring an end to the acrimony.

To amend a system the council calls anachronistic, it is working on getting a bill through Congress that would pay ranchers to retire their grazing leases, likely the only solution that will end cattle grazing. The Cow-Free Monument/Wilderness Act would pay public lands ranchers in the monument area $300 a month per authorized animal (a cow and a calf), after which ranchers would voluntarily relinquish their grazing leases. The act would also designate another 23,000 acres in the Soda Mountain backcountry as wilderness. Of western Oregon lands held by the BLM, less than — percent (15,000 acres) is designated as wilderness. In eastern Oregon, only the Steens Mountains is designated as wilderness &

a status that doesn't mean all the cow-munching is over. The bill previously reached Congress, but did not pass before the 109th Congress ended Dec. 31, 2006. Consequently, it must be reintroduced and succeed in getting passed in the same two-year session for it to become law.

If the bill fails, the Soda Mountain folks won't hesitate to go to court, although council members would prefer to avoid having to use litigation and a judge to order the cows out of the monument.

There's presently 53,000 acres in the monument, not all one solid block of land. There's still private holdings interspersed throughout. Another 16,000 to 17,000 acres that logically extend into the wilderness system lie on the California side of the state border. The Soda Mountain Wilderness Council hopes to designate some of that as wilderness with the Cow-Free bill.

"The biological boundary artificially gets cut off at the border," Willis says.

Although Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., asked Babbitt to include the California acres in the monument, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., blocked it.

While June 9 is the official anniversary date of the monument designation, the council is stepping up the celebration date because spring is here, blooms are out, grass is green, water is flowing and the cows haven't eaten everything yet.

"It's sad it's taken so many people so long to get any protection," Willis says.

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