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BLM soon to close Soda Mountain Wilderness to vehicles

By Paul Fattig

For the Tidings

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will begin closing vehicle access to the newly minted Soda Mountain Wilderness Area early next week.

The agency will place large boulders or build berms to block roads that lead into what is now wilderness. Their efforts also will include alerting visitors to the wilderness boundaries, said Jim Whittington, spokesman for the BLM's Medford District.

"We will be looking at traditional access points — i.e., roads — and closing them with big rocks or berms to prevent mechanized use in the wilderness," Whittington said.

The closure pertains only to mechanized travel, which includes bicycles.

"We don't want people to get the impression it's off-limits," he said. "You can still hike, ride horses, hunt, fish and camp."

Nor will the closures affect private land holdings within the wilderness, he added.

"Under wilderness laws, they will still have traditional access," he said. "But only them. We will work with them to set up gates and locks. We've been consulting with the affected landowners.

"Our intent is not to be heavy-handed but to ease people into it," he added. "We want folks to understand this is a congressional mandate and it is necessary for us to follow these steps."

Designated by Congress on March 30, the 24,100-acre wilderness is within the boundaries of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which covers 53,827 acres. The 1964 Wilderness Act requires that land designated as wilderness must be preserved and protected in its natural condition.

"Wilderness is a place where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain," it states.

At the heart of the Soda Mountain Wilderness is 5,720-foot-high Boccard Point, where the Great Basin meets three mountain ranges. The Klamath Range comes up from the south, the Siskiyou Range from the west and the Cascades from the north.

The closures will not affect areas outside the wilderness. For instance, people still will be able to drive to the top of Soda Mountain, which is not in the wilderness.

However, the road closures mean people no longer will be able to drive to the base of the 5,900-foot-high Pilot Rock, which is inside the wilderness, Whittington said. The prominent ancient volcanic plug was named by settlers crossing the Siskiyou Pass 150 years ago.

"We expect that to be one of the big issues," he said of the rock that attracts many visitors each year. "The wilderness boundary is about a half-mile down the road from Pilot Rock."

However, the work will begin with lesser-used access areas, he said, noting most of the access roads seldom are used.

"We'll start working on little spur roads that go up to boundary and end, or go just past it," he said. "There may be places where people had a turnaround that is now inside the wilderness. We want to let them know they won't have those turnarounds anymore."

In the legislation creating the wilderness, the agency is required to have a wilderness plan in place within two years of the area's designation, he said.

"This is the first step," he said. "In the next couple of months we will start developing a wilderness plan. We need to figure out what kind of trail system we will have. There are a lot of questions people will have that we don't have answers for yet."

Nationwide, the BLM has 190 wilderness areas covering about 7 million acres.

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