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Monumental plan

ASHLAND — Federal land managers are mulling whether to close or decommission as few as six miles or up to as many as 165 miles of old logging roads within the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument to help preserve the land's biodiversity but retain public access.

The federal Bureau of Land Management's long-awaited draft plan grapples with how to address 412 miles of roads that everyone from hunters and birders to wildland firefighters use to access a 60,434-acre chunk of the monument. 

The draft plan addresses what roads should remain open to fire trucks and other public vehicles, snowmobilers, Nordic skiers and mountain bikers while addressing the monument's main goal of protecting biological diversity in an area once heavily roaded for logging but still popular for recreation.

Studies show roads can fragment wildlife habitat, lead to erosion, put sediment in streams and harm the land, which the proclamation creating the monument in 2000 states shall be protected for its biological diversity and ecological significance.

"We're trying to identify what is the main road system we need to maintain for this monument," says Joel Brumm, the monument's assistant manager. "We're trying to balance what's appropriate access with a proclamation that doesn't address recreational access." 

In the works since 2011, the draft plan and accompanying environmental study trot out four alternatives that run the gamut of resource protection. They include Alternative 2, which outlines the closing or decommissioning of 165 miles of roadway, more than a third of which already is overgrown and impassable, according to BLM.

That alternative was listed last month as BLM's "proposed action" alternative, but the agency heard resistance from Jackson County commissioners and others over a perception that BLM already had decided on its direction before the public comment period opened, Brumm says.

When BLM released the draft Friday, the alternatives contained no headings other than the standard no-action Alternative 1.

Alternative 3 is similar to Alternative 2 but closes about 15 fewer miles, with about 40 percent already overgrown and inaccessible, according to the draft.

Options 1 and 4 don't address roads in the 12,288 acres of land purchased with federal offshore oil and gas exploration fees through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which can be used for land acquisition but not road maintenance, Brumm says.

Option 1 calls for closing slightly more than six miles of road already identified and approved for closure under a 2008 management plan, while Option 4 bumps that up to slightly more than 22 miles of closed or decommissioned roads.

For snowmobilers, the options range from banning recreational snowmobiling in the monument to opening portions north of Highway 66 and possibly adding some roads.

The specific proposed open and closed roads are detailed in maps that accompany all four alternatives.

BLM's public comment period on the alternatives runs through May 9, and an open house is planned for 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 6, at Bellview Grange in Ashland.

"Although we have these four alternatives, we're open to something in between," Brumm says.

BLM is getting push-back on the draft plan from some hunters and others who don't want vehicle access reduced because the required walk-in or horseback alternatives would make access difficult for some and potentially impossible for the elderly or disabled.

"We'd hate to see the BLM take more land from us," says Brad Hewitt, a Rogue River hunter who has frequented some of the monument lands for most of his 59 years.

Hewitt wants to see BLM leave intact vehicle access to key arteries into monument lands, specifically Skookum Road that heads to Agate Flat and the road to the Pilot Rock trailhead.

Proposals in the draft include gating as much as six more miles of Skookum Road and two more miles toward Pilot Rock.

Doing so would push hunters toward Pacific Crest Trail access points for camping during fall hunting seasons, possibly creating user conflicts with PCT hikers, Hewitt says.

"We don't want to bother the PCT hikers," Hewitt says.

Hewitt says gating Skookum Road would render thousands of acres largely inaccessible to hunters other than those who own private land along that road, because those landowners would get gate keys for access.

"That would be like creating a 10,000-acre private hunting preserve for them because they own five acres down there," Hewitt says.

Soda Mountain Wilderness Council Chairman Dave Willis says more decommissioning and closing of roads, and not less, are needed to meet the monument's stated goals of protecting ecologically significant lands and the unique biological corridor that led to the monument's creation.

Studies show roads are migration barriers for amphibians and some small mammals, are avoided by some animals such as elk and are used by predators to move into territories they otherwise wouldn't access.

Fewer roads mean fewer chunks of fragmented habitat, and "we need to get more of that back, not just for ourselves but for the critters and future generations," Willis says.

Southern Oregon forests are crisscrossed with open roads to access other public lands not set aside for protection as the monument is, Willis says. 

"The BLM is legally required to make this attempt to heal the monument," Willis says. "They should be thanked, but encouraged to do a much better job."

Willis, who lost most of his feet to frostbite 40 years ago and has trouble hiking, called the argument for keeping open roads for access to the elderly and disabled a red herring.

"I don't want my handicap to be used to further injure the monument land and waters with roads," he says.

Brumm says the agency would propose more road closures if not for the need for fire-suppression, though critics say open roads help lead to more human-caused fires.

Money for BLM road maintenance historically came from timber receipts, so there has been little or no upkeep on these roads.

The draft lays out no timetable for implementation of any plan once adopted. Implementation, in fact, could take years "given budget constraints, contracting realities, seasonal restrictions and limited resources," the draft states.

 Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Hunters want vehicle access to continue on key arteries into monument lands, including the road to the Pilot Rock trailhead. Mail Tribune file photo