After nearly 18 months of contemplation, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District has come up with a draft management plan for its Soda Mountain Wilderness.

After nearly 18 months of contemplation, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District has come up with a draft management plan for its Soda Mountain Wilderness.

The plan being released today includes an alternative that officials describe as moderate, calling for returning some roads to their natural state, converting other roads into trails and removing some structures. However, most significant historic structures would remain.

Comments will be accepted through Oct. 24. A decision on the final plan is expected early next year.

The 24,100-acre wilderness, created by Congress in early spring 2009 in the middle of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, is the only officially recognized wilderness in the roughly 800,000-acre district. The 53,827-acre monument itself wasn't established until 2000 to protect what scientists describe as unusually rich biological diversity.

"We had to educate ourselves — we did not have a wilderness until this one," observed Howard Hunter, the monument's assistant manager. "We had a monument, then the wilderness. We had to study wilderness regulations at length."

The draft stewardship plan and environmental assessment includes four alternatives. Alternative 2, the proposed action, offers a "midrange of actions," Hunter said.

"This would restore wilderness character where easily achievable and provide visitor enjoyment and moderate use of trailheads," he said. "A few selected roads would be converted to trails. We think that's a reasonable approach."

"We think it is the best plan in terms of restoration while also allowing activity and preserving wilderness character," added Kathy Minor, a planner for the monument.

For instance, there are about 80 miles of former vehicle routes inside the wilderness, of which 75 miles were closed by the creation of the monument, Hunter said.

"But we are only going after the roads within a mile and a half of the wilderness boundary," he said.

That includes seven miles of road that will be largely restored to the natural state, Minor said.

"In that area, we will be pulling all the culverts and pulling back the slope to establish the natural slope as much as possible," she said, adding that altogether, some 23 miles of roads would require some use of mechanized equipment to return them either to their natural state or into trails.

"We our proposing mechanized equipment in the short-term — in the first few years — to decommission some roads and remove some culverts," Hunter said. "We want to do that so in the medium long-term, evidence of human activity is mitigated.

"There are many pristine places in this wilderness," he added. "But there are also places that have a lot of evidence of human use — roads, culverts, some buildings."

Alternative 1 is the "no action" option, which would leave the area in its current condition. Alternative 3 would provide much less restoration and retain the most evidence of human impact, focusing on such things as removing culverts that have potential to cause major erosion problems if they become plugged. It would also retain most existing structures. Alternative 4 would remove all structures.

"Alternative 4 would be our maximum restoration alternative," Hunter said. "Our feeling was that would be the aggressive approach."

Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, a wilderness is defined as a place "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

However, officials also had to consider the Historic Preservation Act, which covers objects that are 50 years or older.

As a result, much of the former Box-O Ranch, a historic ranch in the Jenny Creek Valley, will be preserved. The 1,200-acre ranch was acquired by the BLM in a land exchange in 1995. The brothers Grieve established the ranch in the high mountain valley in 1899, although BLM archaeologists say indigenous people have inhabited the area for some 10,000 years.

"Under the proposed alternative, we would not remove the historic irrigation ditches, the Grieve homestead site or the Box-O barn," Hunter said. "We would not remove the old cattle chute, the dehorning gate, corral, scale house and the old fencing by the barn."

Old farm implements such as a hay loader and harrow would also be left in place, he said, as would the historic Frank Lake cabin, built in the mid-1930s. However, a newer structure known as "Slappy's Cabin" would be removed, he said.

All wildfires would be suppressed if they posed a threat to human life or property in the wilderness, he said, although noting that decision would hinge on the proximity to Interstate 5 and adjacent high-value property, impact on air quality and other factors.

In the draft plan, officials also had to consider what is known as "valid existing rights," Hunter observed.

"It is in the regulations but not spelled out in strict detail," he said. "There are two inholders — private landowners — that require vehicular access into the wilderness. They need to be able to drive a short segment into the wilderness. We had to evaluate the legality of that."

Under the proposed alternative, those property owners would have the same vehicular access to their properties as was allowed before the surrounding public land was designated wilderness, he said.

"They could not improve that access or use it to a different degree," he said.

The area remains open to recreation such as backpacking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing and camping. No cattle grazing is permitted.

Comments can be submitted through regular mail by sending them to U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 3040 Biddle Road, Medford, OR 97504. Additional information is available at www.mailtribune.com/soda-mt-draft-plan.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.