Middle ground

The draft management plan for the 2-year-old Soda Mountain Wilderness appears to strike a balance between removing all evidence of human activity and leaving all the pre-wilderness development in place. That's a reasonable approach, given the history of the land, and local residents should support it.

The Soda Mountain Wilderness was created when Congress passed the mammoth Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 and President Obama signed it into law. The act was made up of 170 separate bills that protected 2 million acres in nine states, from Oregon to Virginia.

In Oregon, in addition to Soda Mountain, the act created the 13,700-acre Copper Salmon Wilderness in the upper Elk River watershed on the west side of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, 128,000 additional acres of wilderness 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.

The 24,100-acre Soda Mountain Wilderness already was protected to a certain extent because it was part of the 53,827-acre Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, established in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.

National monument lands are protected from development and resource extraction, but public uses are less restricted than in wilderness areas. For instance, mechanized vehicles are permitted, including bicycles and motor vehicles. In wilderness areas, no mechanized transportation is allowed, although horseback riding is permitted.

One of the major concerns to conservationists is erosion from roads. Accordingly, the draft management plan calls for decommissioning and removing some roads to restore the landscape to its natural condition. Other roads are planned to be converted to trails.

The Bureau of Land Management's Medford District, which is responsible for this wilderness area, contains no other wilderness, so local BLM officials had to start from scratch. What they came up with is a reasonable approach that should encourage support from most Southern Oregon residents.

The historic Box-O Ranch, established in 1899, lies within the wilderness boundary. The BLM could have proposed razing all ranch structures, but most will be preserved. That complies with the Historic Preservation Act, which in this case is at odds with the Wilderness Act of 1964.

The important thing to remember about this and other wilderness areas is that they are created for the benefit of the public, not in order to lock the public out. Many recreation activities still are permitted in wilderness areas, including hiking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing and camping. The idea is that people should visit, but leave no permanent evidence of their presence.

The BLM will hold a public meeting from 5-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13, at the Green Springs Inn, 11470 Highway 66. Comments will be accepted until Oct. 24, and a final decision on the plan is expected next year.

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