HORSE CREEK, Calif. — Looking south from near the crest of the Siskiyou Mountains into the Horse Creek drainage his family has called home for 135 years, Gary Rainey sees more than evergreen forests.
"This land is our way of life, literally our heart and soul," he said. "Our cattle have been running (grazing) here since 1875, same strain of cattle on the same land. We raised our food from the garden. We raised the hay to feed the cattle. Everything we do is about keeping this place healthy."
He pointed to a distant area far below where Middle Creek and Horse Creek join before flowing into the Klamath River.
"Our bodies consume the water and minerals that come out of these mountains — this land is us," said Rainey, 62, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War who lives on ranchland settled by his great-grandfather from Ireland.
"And it just tears your heart out that this could be taken away," added the former logger.
He and his cousin, Steve Fisher, are outspoken among Siskiyou County residents in their opposition to a proposed 600,000-acre Siskiyou Crest National Monument they fear would change their lifestyle and degrade the land.
During a tour Wednesday of a southern portion of the proposed area where the Klamath forest and private forestlands form a checkerboard pattern, the cousins and others who gathered expressed their concerns that a monument would impact private property adjacent to the federal lands, resulting in decreased timber harvest from both, as well as reduced mining and motorized recreational opportunities.
The bottom line, they said, is that the region boasts a healthy environment, largely because of a local lifestyle practiced over generations.
"This is about our livelihood," said Fisher, standing on a ridge about 15 air miles southeast of the southern tip of Oregon's Applegate Lake.
"This forest provides our economy," he said. "It's also where we go to hunt and fish. It's where we go to get wood. It's where we go to make a living, where we raise our kids. Our ancestors passed it down to us. We pass it on down to our kids. But we stand to lose it all if it becomes a monument."
Proposed a year ago by the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, the monument would stretch out along the Oregon-California state line. It would link the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument to the Oregon Caves National Monument and the Siskiyou Wilderness Area near Happy Camp.
Rising up to 7,000 feet above sea level along the crest, it would dip down into the Rogue, Applegate and Klamath river watersheds. Proponents say the monument would include existing federal land in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, the Klamath National Forest and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District.
Since it was first proposed last July, the monument has been opposed by the timber industry, miners and off-road vehicle enthusiasts on both sides of the state line. The Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution 4-1 last summer opposing it, citing what it said would be a dramatic downturn in an already struggling economy.
In Oregon, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners in a 2-1 vote in April joined its counterparts in Josephine, Klamath, Douglas and Deschutes counties in approving an order urging the federal government to halt attempts to place more restrictions on public lands until the county and other stakeholders get a chance to weigh in. Specifically, the commissioners were concerned a presidential proclamation could create a monument with little public input.
In May, Rocky Reeser, a member of the Multiuse Trail Coalition of Jackson County, submitted a petition to the county commissioners signed by more than 3,000 off-road vehicle advocates opposing the monument, as well as a proposed wilderness adjacent to Crater Lake National Park.
The Siskiyou County residents gathered Wednesday said they support efforts to protect the environment, but believe monumental protection would not achieve that goal because it would decrease management such as forest thinning.
"My dad was a gyppo logger who logged a lot of this country up here — put a lot of the roads in — and made a good livelihood out of here for 50 some years," said Fisher, 60, referring to a term used for loggers who traditionally logged land owned by others.
During the tour, he pulled his four-wheel-drive Ford pickup sporting a "No Monument!" bumper sticker to the side of the logging road to point out a forest reborn.
"This was all logged a long time ago but the trees have come back," he said. "This is all natural reforestation. And it's ready to be logged again."
However, like much of the local forestland, it needs to be thinned to reduce the threat of a catastrophic fire, he said.
"This is a fire danger," he said. "What you've got here is nothing but ladder fuel. That fire will climb right up through those trees."
The forestland needs to be managed to reduce fire danger and improve forest health, an activity that wouldn't happen under monument management, he said.
Of the more than 300,000 acres of federal land in Siskiyou County, about 205,000 acres already are protected by various special designations, observed Danielle Lindler, 36, a forester who also is the executive director of the Klamath Alliance for Resources & Environment.
"If there is already this additional designation that limits harvesting, what is the true objective of this monument?" she asked. "KS Wild says they want to promote commercial thinning, but what is going to change under monument designation that is not occurring already?"
The county produces about eight times more timber than is harvested, she said, citing federal and private statistics. Like Fisher, she is concerned that monument protection would reduce management, including commercial thinning, thus making the area ripe for large wildfires or insect infestation.
Looking at the forest, she observed that more variety is needed, such as open canopies.
"We are losing meadows because of encroachment by the forest," she said. "But you would never be able to reintroduce open canopy forest situations. Deer and elk and other wildlife need those open areas for their ecological niche. If that happens in watershed after watershed, that's not a biological benefit."
Former logger Tony Bishop, 54, now retired from a telephone company and owner of a small ranch in nearby Seiad Valley, agrees with the others that a monument would threaten their way of life.
"My son works in the woods and my son-in-law works for the county road department," he said. "They are trying to make it here. But we have exported our youth and we've exported most of our private sector jobs here. This would further decimate the community."
Mike Adams, 60, a retired carpenter who owns 164 acres abutting the national forestland, believes a monument would have a negative impact on adjacent property owners.
"My property was logged a long time ago and needs to be thinned," he said, adding he is concerned he won't be able to manage his forestland if the monument is created.
"This land is unique but it doesn't deserve the punishment of a national monument," Adams said.
Rainey said families have lived in the region in harmony with the mountains for generations.
"We would protect this land with our lives," said Rainey, whose grandsons are the seventh generation connected to the land.
"I don't often open up my Achilles' heel, but I did two tours of Vietnam," he added. "When I came home, this valley — this land — was the only thing that brought me back to sanity."
He stopped talking to take a long look down at the valley.
"I still come up here," he said softly, adding, "It still helps."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at email@example.com.