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Wilderness areas could be voted on this week

The U.S. Senate may vote as early as Sunday on the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, which contains two proposed wilderness areas in southwestern Oregon among its more than 150 public lands, water and resources bills.

The legislation containing the proposed 23,000-acre Soda Mountain Wilderness in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and the roughly 13,700-acre Copper Salmon Wilderness in the Elk River drainage near Port Orford was introduced Wednesday morning by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., according to Tom Towslee, Oregon spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

"In the best of circumstances it would be voted on Sunday," Towslee said of the omnibus package which was blocked in the last Congress by a filibuster threat from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Coburn argued the legislation would increase government spending while reducing energy development. Reid had vowed to move the bill forward early in the 111th Congress.

"We're closer than we've ever been — I think it's going to happen," said Greensprings resident Dave Willis, chairman of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council. "I think this bronc is going to buck for a little while but I think we're going to stay on the horse and ride it out of the corral."

In addition to creating the Soda Mountain Wilderness, the bill also contains language that would retire grazing leases in and around the monument through a buyout of willing ranchers. The buyout would be paid by private sources.

After the omnibus package was derailed by Coburn at the end of the last Congress, it had been expected that an economic stimulus package would be among the first of the bills to be acted on in the new session. A delay on that bill provided an opening for the omnibus legislation to move forward. Supporters say there are enough votes on both sides of the aisle to overcome Coburn's opposition.

"We were pleasantly surprised," Willis said of the bill's fast track. "We're glad it's moving. We're optimistic."

Eagle Point resident Mike Beagle, field coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Oregon and Washington, also was surprised by the fast track approach. Beagle has lobbied Congress to pass the Copper Salmon Wilderness bill.

"There is so much on the plate for our representatives and senators — two wars and major economic problems," he said.

But he noted local residents have been working for more than a quarter of a century on protecting remote areas such as the Elk River and Soda Mountain.

"There is a lot of Oregon natural heritage at stake," Beagle said. "With the Copper Salmon, it's not just local fishing and the economy. It's for anyone who loves to catch big fish and see big trees."

The wilderness proposal is backed by the Port Orford Chamber of Commerce, the mayor of Port Orford, the Curry County Board of Commissioners, more than 10 fishing and hunting groups, local businesses and Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

"We're happy to see this moving again," Beagle said. "It's exciting. But, like Reagan said, trust but verify."

Although the House approved a Copper Salmon Wilderness bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., last spring, the entire omnibus package would have to be passed in both the Senate and the House and signed by the president before it became law, he noted.

Both Wyden and newly minted Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, support the omnibus package. Former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican who was edged out by Merkley in the 2008 general election, also supported it.

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