Maintaining wilderness areas should be priority

The Cascade Siskiyou National Monument is a jewel in our midst, but there's much that could be done to bring out its full luster. Passage of a proposal by Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith would be a big step in that direction.

After a similar plan fell by the wayside in the 2006 session, Wyden and Smith reintroduced a bill in November that would buy out grazing leases on the monument and create a wilderness area in the most isolated and pristine portion of the land. Both portions of the bill are important to the long-term success of protecting the area.

Buying out grazing rights would remove cattle from the monument and take with them the damage the animals do to meadows and riparian areas. A pristine meadow in the monument is likely to be filled with wildflowers and other native life, while a meadow that has hosted a herd of cattle will be trampled, muddy and anything but pristine.

Beyond the environmental reasons for ending grazing, however, is a very practical one: Environmentalists and ranchers alike agree that the buyout option is best for both sides. The ranchers can see their grazing days are numbered in protected areas like the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument and are willing to step aside if they can be compensated for the economic loss they will incur by moving their herds to private lands where feed will have to be supplemented.

Creating the proposed 23,000-acre Soda Mountain Wilderness Area within the monument would prevent commercial logging and off-road vehicle use and expand Oregon's rather woeful amount of wilderness. Only 3.7 percent of the state is protected wilderness; Washington and California offer 10 and 14 percent, respectively. While a sizable portion of the 53,000-acre monument is near to developed lands, the central wilderness area would create a fully protected area where the region's many wonders could prosper.

And there are many wonders in the monument. Its location at the confluence of the Cascade and Siskiyou mountain ranges creates a richness and diversity in plant and animal life rarely matched elsewhere. That includes 115 butterfly species, myriad animals and what is described as the most botanically diverse conifer forest in North America. Wander through those woods and you'll see towering sugar pines, Douglas fir and incense cedar and marvel at the beauty of purple lupine, indigo larkspur and scarlet paintbrush. Two wildflowers, Greene's mariposa lily and Gentner's fritillary, grow only here, thanks to the unique climate.

All of this lies at Ashland's doorstep, a peaceful escape that is literally minutes away from the increasing bustle of modern life.

We encourage Congress to join with Oregon's two senators in preserving and enhancing this irreplaceable jewel.

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