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BLM backs Soda Mountain Wilderness

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management supports creating the proposed 23,000-acre Soda Mountain Wilderness in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

Luke Johnson, the agency's deputy director, made the announcement Wednesday while testifying before the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests.

"We believe these areas are manageable as wilderness, and we support the designation," Johnson told the subcommittee chaired by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Johnson was testifying in response to the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument Voluntary and Equitable Grazing Conflict Resolution Act (Senate Bill 2379), introduced late last year by Wyden and U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.

In addition to creating the wilderness in the 52,947-acre monument, the bill would provide one-time federal payments to ranchers holding BLM grazing leases on the monument. The BLM opposes this portion of the bill.

Also testifying Wednesday were Ashland resident Andy Kerr, consultant for the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, and longtime Ashland area rancher Mike Dauenhauer. Both supported the bill.

There are 11 ranchers with grazing leases allowing 2,714 active animal unit months (AUMs) in the monument, according to the BLM. An AUM is the amount of forage needed for one cow and calf for a month.

The proposed buyout is $300 per AUM, making the total buyout slightly more than $800,000.

The bill benefits all factions, from cattle ranchers to the environmental community, Dauenhauer, president of the Jackson County Stockmen's Association, told the subcommittee.

Because his grazing lease is "tied up in the monument," it no longer has any value, he said, adding, "It has turned from an asset to a liability."

The buyout would be a bargain for the government since the alternative would likely be years of litigation over the matter, costing much more, he indicated.

"The most amazing part of this journey has been the coming together of the environmental and the ranching communities," he said, noting the two factions often disagree.

Kerr concurred.

"The legislation furthers the public interest and the purposes for which the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was established," he testified. "Enactment of S. 2379 will enhance the protection and restoration of a botanically diverse ecoregion that serves as a loading dock to the Klamath-Siskiyou ark."

Created in 2000, the monument, located where the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains intertwine east of Ashland, was the first in the nation established solely on the basis of its rich biodiversity. The monument is in the BLM's Medford District.

In his testimony favoring the wilderness, Johnson cited the biodiversity within the proposed wilderness, calling it a "jewel of biological variety."

Although the BLM supports the goals of the bill, it doesn't the grazing buyouts or the requirement calling for the agency to construct and maintain fencing to exclude livestock from allotments that are retired, Johnson said.

"The amounts authorized appear insufficient to complete the work anticipated by the bill," he said, adding the agency doesn't have alternative sources of funding.

However, the agency is committed to working with the committee, the sponsors and stakeholders on the issues, he said.

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