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Dave Willis, shown here with Pilot Rock in the background, has worked for 25 years to help establish the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area. The new wilderness area, which comprises 23,000 acres southeast of Ashland, includes Pilot Rock. - Jamie Lusch

Saving the wild

Consider the 5,900-foot-high Pilot Rock, a volcanic plug named by settlers crossing the Siskiyou Pass on the Oregon/California Trail 150 years ago.

Or the mariposa lilies, rare in these parts, that soon will be emerging from their long winter nap down in the Scotch Creek glens.

Or the more than 100 species of butterflies flitting about in the high-mountain air.

These represent just a sampling of the rich biological and geological diversity in the mountains southeast of Ashland that last week led to an act of Congress declaring 23,000 acres as the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 containing the new wilderness on Monday. The act also includes the 13,700-acre Copper Salmon Wilderness in the headwaters of the Elk River near Port Orford.

"The enduring importance of the Soda Mountain wilderness is that we are finally coming to grips with a plan to protect the core of the monument," stressed Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the interior when the 53,827-acre Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was created in 2000.

"This monument was proclaimed primarily because of its diverse floristic values," he added in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. "We knew that preserving the diversity of plant life would not be possible with the grazing issue unresolved."

Language in the act provides for permanent and voluntary retirement of the five major cattle grazing leases by private buyout on some 106,700 acres in and around the monument. That buyout, which represents 94 percent of grazing in the area, is being paid for by conservation groups.

"The wilderness designation gives a statutory mandate to the BLM that can't be modified in inappropriate ways," Babbitt said. "This sets a model for other special places around the nation."

The new wilderness lies on the south side of the monument in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District. The summit of Soda Mountain, which has a fire lookout and a road leading to it, is not part of the wilderness, but the wilderness area includes much of the mountain's south shoulder.

At the heart of the wilderness is 5,720-foot high Boccard Point, where the Great Basin meets three mountain ranges. The Klamath Range, some 180 million years old, comes up from the south while the much younger Siskiyou Range, a mere 40 million years old, extends from the west. Jutting up from the north, the upstart Cascade Range is a geological baby at a mere 10 million years old.

"The great value of this wilderness is that it's unfragmented — the habitats are intact, not fragmented by human activity like roads and resource extraction," observed Pepper Trail, a wildlife biologist and ornithologist from Ashland.

"This area is in a critical position as a crossroads, both geologically and biologically, for North America. Because of where it is, it forms a unique high-elevation land bridge — a natural biological corridor — for diversity."

Trail, who has led scientific field trips from South America to the South Pacific, says the new wilderness offers visitors a biological treasure trove.

"For such a small area to have both biological diversity and topographic contrasts is very unusual," he said. "The densities of communities is very great, much more than most places I've been.

"If you walk the Pacific Crest Trail from Pilot Rock to Soda Mountain, every few hundred yards is a meadow, a conifer glade, a rocky outcropping. Every half-mile has a whole different set of features. That's a very notable aspect of the wilderness."

Visitors should keep their eyes peeled for a rare bird of prey, such as a peregrine falcon, a black bear, deer, elk, fox and coyotes.

In fact, early in summer 2000, a small, tawny-orange butterfly with light yellow spots on its wings was discovered flitting on Soda Mountain. Known as the mardon skipper, it was the first one ever seen in the Oregon wild by lepidopterists.

The mardon skipper is one of more than 100 species of butterflies found in the area, making it one of the most diverse places for butterfly species in North America, Trail observed.

"In a world of climate change, places like this are becoming even more important," he said. "One of the big questions is how natural communities will adjust. Places like this will be absolutely critical."

Greensprings resident Dave Willis, chairman of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council and one who long championed the wilderness, hopes to see more areas of public land protected.

"A major milestone like this wonderful wilderness bill is a long-sought step forward," he said. "But it's not the end of the protection trail here."

Noting it has been 25 years since Oregon had a major wilderness expansion, he said he would like to see the wilderness, as well as the monument, expanded.

"If the Soda Mountain area is the genetic loading dock to the Noah's Ark of globally significant Klamath-Siskiyou botanical diversity, isn't it odd that the little Soda Mountain loading dock has received a lot more proportional protection than the larger Klamath-Siskiyou ark itself?" he asked.

Back in Washington, D.C., Babbitt observed that it was a grassroots effort led by Willis and others that created the wilderness.

"Without them, this would have never happened," he said. "All the volunteer work from the local people dedicated to making it happen were the ones that accomplished this. Their citizen effort should be a message to us all.

"This should inspire us to look at the entire Klamath-Siskiyou ecosystem. There is still more to do."

Meanwhile, he plans to hike into the new wilderness surrounding Pilot Rock.

"I'll be back," said the former Arizona governor. "I'm in Washington but my heart is in the West."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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