Wilderness bill awaits Obama's OK

Two wilderness areas long proposed in southwestern Oregon are now only one signature away from becoming the law of the land.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 by a vote of 285 to 140 on Wednesday. Approved by the Senate last week, the act contains the 23,000-acre Soda Mountain Wilderness in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in the mountains just southeast of Ashland and the 13,700-acre Copper Salmon Wilderness in the upper Elk River watershed on the west side of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

Other Oregon wilderness areas contained in the bill include 128,000 acres on Mount Hood, nearly 31,000 acres in the badlands just east of Bend, and 8,600 acres overlooking the John Day Wild and Scenic River.

Nationwide, the legislation sets aside as protected wilderness more than 2 million acres in nine states, from Oregon to Virginia. Supporters argued the legislation, approved by the entire Oregon congressional delegation, would help preserve clean water and fisheries. Opponents described it as a land grab which would block access to energy resources.

President Obama is expected to sign the legislation soon.

Greensprings resident Dave Willis, chairman of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council who has been working to protect the area for a quarter of a century, called it a major milestone in protecting what scientists say is a uniquely diverse area of flora and fauna.

"This bill gives the best protection possible to the wildest and most ecologically diverse part of the monument," he said. "The wilderness portion of the Soda Mountain backcountry is now better protected from Bureau of Land Management administrative whim than ever."

The monument, created in 2000, is in the BLM's Medford District.

Wilderness designation gives the area protection from political winds with each changing administration, Willis said.

"There are special places in the Soda Mountain area that will now have the wilderness gold standard of public lands protection," he said. "That's a pretty good feeling to have."

Although wilderness protection does not preclude cattle grazing, language in the act provides for permanent and voluntary retirement of cattle grazing leases by private buyout on up 106,672 acres in and around the monument.

"Most of this wilderness — if not all — will soon be cow-free," he said.

But Willis was quick to observe the creation of the wilderness wasn't the result of one person's effort.

"It took a lot of people, pulling together for a long time, to change things for the better, to make this happen," he said, noting that included the late biologist Bruce Boccard and late geographer Marc Prevost, both of whom were instrumental in helping move the wilderness proposal forward.

Eagle Point resident Mike Beagle, Trout Unlimited's field coordinator in Oregon and Washington, was equally jubilant about the Copper-Salmon wilderness. The Copper-Salmon was the first sportsman- and sportswoman-led wilderness campaign in state history, he said, adding that Port Orford residents Jim Rogers and Jerry Becker have been pushing for the wilderness designation for about two decades.

"This is hugely important for Oregon's sportsmen and women, and particularly for the fishing community in Port Orford that depends on the Elk River and its prized salmon and steelhead for economic subsistence," he said, citing U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, for their support of the legislation.

"They've done a huge favor for sportsmen, both today and for generations to come," Beagle said.

The watershed with its largely undeveloped Elk River headwaters includes one of the healthiest salmon and steelhead habitat remaining in Oregon, he said. The old-growth timber in the wilderness area provides shelter for migrating and spawning fish, he added.

"This is very significant for our community and for the anglers who come from all over the Northwest to experience the trophy fishing in the Elk River," said Rogers, a retired forester. "I can't think of a better way to protect this river in perpetuity. Not only does this wilderness protect the river and the fishery, it protects our way of life. We're so thankful to our delegation for sticking with us during this long and challenging effort to protect the Elk River."

The bill designates 9.3 miles of rivers at the headwaters of the north fork of the Elk River as wild and scenic and adds some 13,700 acres of new wilderness adjacent to the existing Grassy Knob Wilderness.

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

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