Commission: Keep Soda Mountain open

Jackson County board opposes movement to declare BLM area a national monument

By PAUL FATTIG

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners declared Tuesday its unanimous opposition to creating a national monument for the Soda Mountain area.

The resolution concludes that creating a national monument on the Bureau of Land Management area a dozen miles southeast of Ashland would decrease or eliminate grazing allotments, restrain recreational and logging use, restrict public access and severely limit public access to the disabled.

And contrary to assertions by those supporting a monument, the board believes the impact of humans on the land caused the area to be ecologically unique, said Commissioner Jack Walker in an interview after the meeting.

"If man's use for 100 years has been so detrimental, then why is it so unique and diverse ecologically?" he asked, then answered, "The development up there has made it what it is."

Although supported by many attending the commissioners' meeting, the commissioners' stance was rejected by the environmental community, which backs protection of the area. Environmentalists say the area needs to be protected from grazing, motor vehicle use and other ground-disturbing activity before its unique plant life is gone forever.

While the debate continues, the BLM plans to release a draft environmental impact statement on March 10 concerning some 40,000 acres in the region as part of its Cascade Siskiyou Ecological Emphasis Area.

Environmentalists led by the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council have been pressing for protection of up to 70,000 acres of federal land in the area where the Siskiyou Mountains meet the Cascade Range.

Off-road motor vehicle users, the timber industry and ranchers have said creating the monument would leave high and dry those who have historically relied on the resource.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited the Rogue Valley in mid-February, meeting with Walker and others to hear concerns about the future of Soda Mountain. He also hiked Soda Mountain last fall.

The commissioners, who are also concerned that monument status will interfere with management practices that reduce fire danger, believe the process is a "top-down" federal government decision, Walker said.

"This administration has not really taken local government and local people's concerns into consideration," Walker said, noting he had made that point when meeting with Babbitt in February.

Walker, a lifelong Rogue Valley resident, said the area has changed little since he first camped on Soda Mountain nearly nearly half a century ago.

"Forty years ago it was the same as you see it today," he said.

When fellow county commissioners Sue Kupillas and Ric Holt travel to Washington, D.C., today on county-related business, they will lobby members of Congress about the need to protect the status quo on Soda Mountain, he said.

"We hope that it will make a difference," Walker said. "But we also know a stroke of the pen by the president can erase all of that."

Ashland resident Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist who is director of the Klamath-Siskiyou program for the World Wildlife Fund, wasn't surprised by the board's resolution.

"The commissioners have decided to plunge us back into the dark ages by continuing the practice of degrading the lands and promoting past practices instead of leaping forward with some visions that addresses the ecological needs of the region," he said. " ...It's clear the commissioners have decided to entrench themselves rather than come to the table and talk about alternatives."

Dave Willis, chairman of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, appeared to agree.

"This isn't the kind of creative leadership that's going to get this county where it needs to go," Willis said. "We can't keep electing commissioners with all six feet mired in a gone-forever public land exploitation past if the future here is going to be one we want to leave for our kids -- for anybody's kids."

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