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Senate votes today on wilderness areas

The U.S. Senate paved the way to create two wilderness areas in southwestern Oregon by invoking cloture by a 68 to 24 vote Wednesday morning on the Omnibus Public Lands Management Bill.

The parliamentary process means the debate is closed and a vote on final passage is expected today on Senate Bill 22, which includes the proposed 23,000-acre Soda Mountain Wilderness in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and the 13,700-acre Copper Salmon Wilderness in the headwaters of the Elk River near Port Orford.

"Cloture essentially ends the debate — this (Wednesday's) vote was probably the biggest hurdle," observed Eagle Point resident Mike Beagle, field coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Oregon and Washington, which supports the wilderness proposals.

The bipartisan support with more than 60 senators voting for the bill means a potential filibuster would be overridden, said Beagle, a former Medford high school history teacher who was in Washington, D.C., for the vote.

It's likely the House will approve the bill if it gets the Senate nod, he said.

"A lot of the bills have already passed in the House, including the Copper Salmon," he said of legislation that is among the more than 160 public lands, water and resources bills contained in the omnibus package.

"We're optimistic and excited but anything could happen," he said.

Port Orford resident Jim Rogers, a forester and sportfisherman, said creating the Copper Salmon Wilderness would protect the salmon and steelhead populations in the Elk River.

"This is a great day for fishermen in Oregon and around the country," he said Wednesday. "To know that our kids and our grand kids will get to experience the fishing in the Elk River is beyond gratifying. ... This means the world to us."

He cited Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley for their support for the omnibus package as well as support provided last year by former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican who lost to Merkley in the 2008 general election.

The Copper Salmon 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.

In addition to protecting the watershed, the bill would designate more than 11 additional miles of the river as either wild or scenic under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and protect some of the last remaining stands of Port Orford cedar in the drainage. The wilderness would be on the western edge of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

The proposed Soda Mountain Wilderness, located on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District in the mountains just east of Ashland, was endorsed last year by the agency. Scientists say the area is unique for its rich biological diversity.

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.

The omnibus legislation calls for expanding the Mount Hood Wilderness by some 128,000 acres and establishing wilderness in the Spring Basin and Badlands areas in north Central Oregon.

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