A dusty red excavator rests at the edge of the Soda Mountain Wilderness.
Behind it, the last half-mile of road in the wilderness — drivable by a low-clearance vehicle — is scheduled to be obliterated during the next few days.
The rest of the road, which had been cut into a hillside in a thickly timbered Douglas fir forest, has already been worked over with the excavator, turning it into a gray, powdery ribbon, 30 feet wide, strewn with angular boulders, and contoured to the natural slope of this steep mountainside.
In time, the road will completely disappear. As planned.
The Bureau of Land Management is tackling a unique challenge this summer: How to turn a wilderness area into ... wilderness.
In 2009, Congress set aside 24,100 acres for the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area, 16 miles southeast of Ashland inside the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Before the creation of the Monument in 2000, the land was a checkerboard of private and public land where areas managed for grazing and logging abutted old-growth forests.
"It really should be called part of a 're-wilding' process," says Dave Willis, chairman of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council. "Much of this area has never seen human disturbance, like some places in the Dutch Oven Creek area."
After nearly 20 years of advocating for the creation of this wilderness, at times on the opposite side of a courtroom from the BLM, Willis likes what he's seeing this summer.
"The plan was very well intended by an (interdisciplinary) team that relished actually managing land for protection rather than trying to mitigate degradation from timber sales," says Willis. "I got the feeling that these folks were thinking, 'Wow, this is cool that we're getting to make a plan like this.' "
This summer marks the first step in the Soda Mountain Wilderness restoration project, one that could extend for several years if BLM receives funding.
"What we're doing is rehabbing from human disturbances that were not compatible with the Wilderness Act," explains Joel Brumm, assistant monument manager at the BLM's Medford office.
The centerpiece of the restoration plan is elimination of an 80-mile network of two-wheel and four-wheel roads.
"These roads are no longer needed, they are sources of sediment into the stream system, they have impacts on wildlife and the aquatic habitat, culverts, structures associated with the roads, as well as compaction," says Brumm. "So our goal, as much as possible, is to go in and remove those culverts, roads, and re-contour them in the cases where budget and engineering make it possible and give a jumpstart to this re-wilding process."
While Willis is happy with the re-contouring of what he sees as the most damaging road in the wilderness — the one being eaten by the excavator — he doesn't think all 80 miles of roads need such a heavy-handed approach.
"Just because the map shows a road doesn't mean there's currently a road on the ground," says Willis. "There's a continuum of standards for roads, and some you can't even see any more (because nature has already reclaimed them)."
One of those roads is destined to become an official trail. The Lone Pilot Trail will follow about 10 miles of former roads and intersect the Pacific Crest Trail. The Siskiyou Mountain Club, with funding from a federal grant, is erecting new trail signs and putting the finishing touches on the trail this summer, according to Brumm.
The popular Pilot Rock Trail is also due for a facelift this summer. The parking area will be re-contoured, and part of the trail will be routed away from an unstable scree slope to a wooded area.
Additional official trails are not part of the plan, even with so many newly closed roads to serve as routes. There's a difficult tradeoff: increased access vs. larger blocks of uninterrupted wilderness.
"We were encouraged strongly not to develop any new official trails, but we have a provision for foot-worn paths," says Brumm. "The recreation opportunities within the Soda Mountain Wilderness and the monument are for people to get out and discover, rather than for us to spell out every feature for people to go and see."
Although many wilderness areas have been created primarily for recreation, the Soda Mountain Wilderness is unique for two other reasons: biodiversity and history.
The wilderness sits at the convergence of three mountain ranges, the Cascades to the north, the Klamaths to the south and the Siskiyous to the west. In many parts of the wilderness, a half-mile walk in a straight line will take you from a brutally hot basalt outcrop to a cool, mixed-conifer forest to a wet meadow.
"The Soda Mountain area is the genetic loading dock to the Noah's Ark of globally significant Klamath-Siskiyou botanical biodiversity," says Willis.
The depression-era Box O Ranch occupies 400 acres in the wilderness. The BLM has wrestled with the question of its future.
"It was part of the larger context of the discussion of 'should there be any human remnants left within the wilderness,' " says Doug Kendig, a BLM botanist who is part of the team that devised the wilderness plan. "Some people felt it should be left as a primordial wilderness, others thought, 'This is neat to come across this old corral, see the heritage of this area.' It adds flavor to the wilderness."
The fate of other human remnants was easier to decide.
Old T-posts, some connected by barbed wire, some merely marking locations of wire strands overtopped by undergrowth, litter the wilderness for perhaps more than a hundred miles, remnants of an attempt to rein in the open range. Community Justice crews are now removing the fence metal. Some of these piles are miles from the nearest vehicle access and may have to be removed in a helicopter sling, according to Kendig.
Designated wilderness areas prohibit the use of mechanized equipment within their borders, so this summer's restoration may appear to conflict with the law.
"Under the Wilderness Act, we're allowed to go in and do these things when the new wilderness is established," Kendig explains. "Later on down the road, we're not going to be able to do that. This is a one-time opportunity to go in and kind of address those human impacts that we'll never have a chance to do again."
This summer's work is concentrated in the Dutch Oven Creek area, and is known as Phase One. The stewardship plan has eight phases. The fate of the other seven phases depends on federal funding.
For this summer, though, Dave Willis gives the wilderness restoration a nod. He sees it as a milestone in his nearly 20 years of advocating for this wilderness.
"I feel like I'm a Tom Sawyer handing out paintbrushes to paint the Soda Mountain Wilderness," Willis says.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org