Opponents of expanding the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southern Oregon say the move was rushed through with little public notice. Supporters point to a series of well-attended public meetings and a comment period in which over 5,000 written comments were received.
But Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s visit to the monument last weekend showed that the community divide over the monument is far from resolved.
Last October, just a couple of weeks before the presidential election, more than 400 people crammed into an auditorium at Southern Oregon University in Ashland to offer their opinions on the proposal to expand the nearby Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Biologist Pepper Trail was on the science team that had studied the monument and recommended roughly doubling its size to nearly 130,000 acres.
“Based on a foundation of solid science,” he said, “now is the time for the expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument to enable spatially comprehensive, cohesive and consistent protection of this unique and precious landscape.”
The science team concluded the monument wasn’t large enough to safeguard the exceptional biodiversity at the convergence of the Klamath, Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges. The monument was created in 2000 by President Bill Clinton expressly to protect that biodiversity.
While most in the SOU auditorium last fall supported the expansion, Klamath County Commissioner Tom Mallams spoke for many when he said expansion would hinder ranching, farming, timber harvest and recreation.
“As a citizen and as a county commissioner,” he said, “I’ve consistently opposed this ever-increasing overreach from our state and federal governments.”
Most of Oregon’s statewide elected officials – as well as city councils in Ashland and Talent -- weighed in in support, while commissioners in Jackson, Klamath and Siskiyou counties opposed the expansion.
In January, barely a week before leaving office, President Barack Obama added nearly 48,000 acres to the monument, about 20 percent less than had been proposed.
A group of 17 western Oregon counties sued, as did a pair of timber companies, saying the expansion illegally limited logging on public land.
Fast forward to mid-July … Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke – a former congressman from Montana – had been tasked by President Trump to review 27 national monuments established by previous administrations with an eye toward scaling back or revoking them.
He’d arrived in southern Oregon to tour Cascade-Siskiyou and to confer with stakeholder groups. On Saturday, after hiking a trail and meeting with snowmobilers, Zinke stood near Hyatt Lake with Rep. Greg Walden and gave clues about how he’s approaching his review.
“I think that going forward, the biodiversity – protection of the biodiversity – can and should be done incorporating traditional use, based on best science, based on good practices,” he said.
By “traditional use,” Zinke means not only commercial uses such as logging and grazing, but recreational uses such as snowmobiles.
That was a big concern for 82-year-old Doyle Hutchison. He told Zinke elderly people who can’t hike or ride horseback anymore don’t have access to the monument.
“We used to be able to drive in there with our four-wheelers or whatever,” he said. “And now, it’s all … They got everything gated up and cameras all over the place.”
Medford resident Cliff Massey told Zinke public land should be open to everybody.
“With the monument, it’s not for everybody. Because I won’t be able to snowmobile no more here because it’ll be cut off,” he said.
But it turns out that fans of motorized recreation are only partly right. It’s true that many roads within the boundaries of the monument have been closed. But Howard Hunter says the monument isn’t responsible for most of those closures
“Outside the wilderness,” Hunter says, “the BLM has only closed one short, badly eroding jeep road since the original monument proclamation in 2000. Other than that, the BLM hasn’t closed any roads in the original monument.”
Hunter was the Bureau of Land Management’s lead on the monument for its first 12 years. He says nearly all of the closed roads are either in the Soda Mountain Wilderness, or on private land. And, he notes, the wilderness was established in 2009 by an act of Congress, not by executive order ...
On Sunday, about 200 monument supporters set up a party, complete with live music and barbecue, in the parking lot of the federal office building in Medford where Zinke was meeting with a pro-monument contingent. A smaller group of opponents was there, as well. Emerging from that meeting, Lanita Witt said Zinke seemed inclined to defer to traditional land management values, which frustrated her.
“It is not the same,” she said. “The world is changing. And the vision needs to change of how do we take care of the earth.”
Witt co-owns Willow-Witt Ranch, a 440-acre property that lies within the monument expansion. She said she and her business partners have been restoring woodlands and wetland on the property for more than 30 years and feels the monument should reflect that approach.
Dave Willis was also in that meeting. Willis heads the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, which works to preserve land in and around the monument. He thinks Zinke’s meeting schedule gave an indication of where the administration’s priorities lie.
“Congressman Walden, and the timber people and the grazing people and others I think got a lot more time than the pro-monument people were given, by far,” he said.
Zinke has already announced he’ll suggest no changes to the Hanford Reach monument in Washington and the Craters of the Moon monument in Idaho. He’ll make his recommendations to President Trump on Cascade-Siskiyou – and the other monuments he’s reviewing -- in late August.
Legal experts are divided on whether the president has the legal authority to repeal or modify monuments declared by previous presidents. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has warned Zinke that if the administration tries it with Cascade-Siskiyou, she stands ready to challenge that in court.
EDITOR"S NOTE: This post was modified on 7/21 to reflect information about the history of road closures within the boundaries of the monument.