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Siskiyou Crest campaign

Like a mirage emerging out of the afternoon heat, unicyclist Geoff Houghton came bobbing along the rocky road following the high backbone of the Siskiyou Mountains.

The naturopathic physician from Ashland was real. Houghton, 42, had just pedaled his way to Siskiyou Gap at nearly 6,000 feet elevation in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

"I love it up here," he said during a quick breather. "When there isn't snow on the ground, it's a great place to ride."

But he didn't quite know what to think of a grassroots effort to create a Siskiyou Crest National Monument along the Oregon-California state line.

"Sometimes monuments get too crowded and too regulated," he said before pedaling east toward Mount Ashland. "A lot of times if they are left alone, they go under the radar with not too many people showing up."

After decades of quietly debating its merits, citing the region's unique flora and fauna, the environmental community led by the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center has stepped forward with a proposal to create a monument of up to 600,000 acres along the crest of the Siskiyous.

It would link the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument created in 2000 to the Oregon Caves National Monument established 100 years ago this year. Roughly half would be in Oregon with the remainder in California, dipping southwest to include the Siskiyou Wilderness Area near Happy Camp.

"It would span 80 or so miles," explained Joseph Vaile, campaign director for KS Wild. "But we're still in a real preliminary stage. We've been talking to scientists and other folks who have been working on this area for a long time to figure out the boundaries."

Much of it would be from 5,000 feet elevation up to 7,000 feet above sea level, although it also would dip down into the Rogue, Applegate and Klamath River watersheds, perhaps down to 2,000 feet elevation in some areas, he said.

The proposed monument would include existing federal land in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, the Klamath National Forest and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District, he said. Private holdings within the monument would not be included, he said.

"The Siskiyou Crest is a treasure trove of rare plants, animal migration routes and scenic vistas," Vaile stressed. "There could also be hundreds of jobs created by restoring the roads, streams and forests in the area."

"The Siskiyou Crest National Monument is an idea whose time has come," added Laurel Sutherlin, a naturalist who serves as the group's outreach director. "Very few places can claim so many exceptional ecological values or provide so many social benefits through their protection."

Loosely roughed out on a map, the proposed monument nearly takes on the outline of a Siskiyou Mountain salamander — albeit on the fat side — which is one of the creatures unique to the Siskiyous.

The real-life rare salamander represents the rich animal and plant life found in the Siskiyous with its unusual east-west orientation, Sutherlin said.

"The geographic setting of the crest is what makes it such a valuable area to protect," Sutherlin said. "It's a very rare system in that the ridges largely run east to west. That creates an extremely valuable wildlife corridor connecting the coast range with the Cascades and Sierras."

The western side of the area has a coastal influence while the eastern edge is influenced by the Great Basin desert, he said, noting that other influences come from the northern Cascades and Sierras to the south.

"With climate change, places like this that act as unbroken corridors will become hugely valuable for survival of species as they move around the landscape," he predicted.

The group will hold an informational meeting on the proposal July 9 in Ashland. It also has scheduled a hiking trek across the proposed area for early August.

With the Democratic Party in charge of both Congress and the White House, monument backers believe there is a chance for creation of the monument. A national monument can be established by Congress or through presidential proclamation.

"It's definitely an ecologically important enough area to be designated a national monument," observed ecologist Dominick DellaSala of the Ashland-based National Center for Conservation Science and Policy.

"There are so many objects of biological interest on the crest," he added. "It's a critical 'land bridge' with lots of rare species, maybe even some wolverine. Places like this are going to be so vital as the climate shifts. We need these old forests with everything they offer as our snowpacks decline over the decades."

But Dave Schott, executive secretary of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association, adamantly disagrees that protecting more land will improve the environment.

"Somewhere along the line, enough is enough," he said. "They increase the fire danger every time they set aside an area. If you don't manage these areas, you lose them to a catastrophic fire.

"It's not a matter of 'if' but 'when.' We have nothing against saving good-sized timber. That's commendable. But if you are doing that to the inclusion of all timber harvests, you are creating a timber hazard."

There would be ample opportunities for thinning trees on the public lands in the proposed monument, said Vaile, who serves with Schott on the Southern Oregon Small Diameter Stewardship Collaborative dedicated to producing small-diameter harvests in the region. Other work in the monument would include road decommissioning and fire-hazard reduction, Vaile noted.

"In areas that have been fire suppressed or logged, we support active management of those areas to bring them back into a more resilient state," Sutherlin said, adding that would include thinning. "The science seems to support active management in certain areas."

They also believe the monument, which would be sliced through by some 60 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, would draw countless hikers, campers and others interested in back-country recreation. The main access roads would remain open as would hunting and fishing access, they said.

Including the 20,230-acre Red Buttes Wilderness Area, the proposed monument would blanket five inventoried roadless areas covering about 150,000 acres, Vaile said.

With the exception of the rare unicyclist, not many people could be found on the forest road between Mount Ashland and Dutchman Peak during a visit this past week. A man and his dog could be seen jogging along the Pacific Crest Trail. A fellow on a motorbike buzzed past on the road.

But countless butterflies flitted in the afternoon sun. A deer stood in an alpine meadow filled with corn lilies. Overhead, a bird of prey rode the thermals, looking for golden-mantled ground squirrels.

White beargrass blossoms popped up along the road as it wound through a forested area. Visitors on the open ridge were greeted by what looked like Mother Nature's rock garden filled with wild phlox, rare lavender paintbrush and other flowers.

"You have fiendishly complex geology up here," Sutherlin said. "That has created a tremendous diversity of soil types ... . When you combine that complex geology with an incredibly complex typography, you get a tremendous number of microclimates which creates diversity across the landscape."

Reach Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com

Siskiyou Crest campaign