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Crater Lake plan raises concerns

About 20 people filled Oregon Congressman Greg Walden's conference room Wednesday to voice concerns about a proposed 500,000-acre wilderness area outside Crater Lake National Park in the Umpqua and Rogue River national forests.

"I'm not exactly excited about (the proposal), but I wanted to hear from you what you think the impacts are, and where you think things are headed," said Walden, a Republican representing the Second Congressional District.

The meeting at Walden’s Medford office was organized by members of the Medford/Jackson County Chamber of Commerce's Natural Resources Action Team, and consisted of speakers from the Medford and Roseburg areas.

"The campaign is for fire protection," said Sue Kupillas of Medford, a former Jackson County commissioner who requested the meeting with Walden.

Another former commissioner, C.W. Smith, attended the meeting as a cabin owner and as a member of Rogue Snowmobilers. Speaking on the dangers of overgrown forests, Smith said that when he finally got permission to remove excess trees on his quarter-acre property, they filled six logging trucks.

"It made it less prone to fire," Smith said, adding that the U.S. Forest Service marked which overgrown trees to remove only after years of delays.

"It's taken over seven years just to take this thinning project," Smith said.

Others at the meeting also touched on wildfire concerns if the multi-use land became wilderness, claiming that letting the forestland become overgrown with a hands-off approach would harm the land.

"If it's so pristine now, why do we want to lock it up?" Rogue Snowmobilers President Dave Jordan asked.

"The threat is if you walk away and don't manage it," Walden said.

Others raised concerns that motor vehicles and even bicycles could be prohibited in the wilderness area. Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal drew from his experience as a firefighter to say that banning firetrucks and bulldozers from using the land would make fighting wildfires more expensive.

"There's a financial aspect that they (wilderness area proponents) need to understand," Breidenthal said.

Oregon Wild, one of several environmental groups that proposed the wilderness area in 2009, said the U.S. Forest Service will still be able to fight wildfires using whatever tools necessary — from chainsaws to bulldozers.

"The Forest Service can use whatever tools they deem necessary to fight fires in wilderness," Oregon Wild Wilderness Program Manager Erik Fernandez said when contacted following the meeting. "If they think it's threatening homes or businesses, they're going to throw everything they have at it, whether it's wilderness or not."

Fernandez said that would also apply to search and rescue vehicles, another concern raised at the meeting.

“If there is someone who needs to be rescued, whatever means necessary,” Fernandez said. “The Wilderness Act is flexible when it comes to emergencies such as search and rescue.”

As an example, Fernandez said Mt. Hood is a wilderness area, and that motor vehicles such as helicopters have been used to locate missing people.

But Smith described the proposed wilderness area as a "disaster for recreationalists."

"The bicyclists won't even be able to get in there," Smith said.

Rogue Snowmobilers president Dave Jordan voiced concerns on behalf of his organization.

"Essentially it would nullify snowmobiling in Southern Oregon," Jordan said.

Jordan said he worked as a wildland firefighter for 15 years and has ridden snowmobiles in the area proposed.

"I know all of this ground very well" Jordan said. “None of this ground meets the 1964 Wilderness Act. Man has left its footprint on it, it's all been logged and there's road throughout all of it. This doesn't meet the criteria.”

Dennis Jordan, representing the Oregon State Snowmobiler Association, told Walden the group just held their annual convention last week at Diamond Lake, bringing 500 snowmobilers to the area and filling lodging rooms and restaurants.

"From an economic standpoint, what we brought to Douglas County and Diamond Lake this last weekend alone was millions of dollars," Dennis Jordan said.

Fernandez, however, said that since most snowmobile traffic is on snow-covered roads, few would be affected by the wilderness proposal.

"The vast majority of snowmobilers that are riding would not be affected,” Fernandez said. “That’s based on looking at their own maps.”

Fernandez said the proposal would preserve a relatively small part of the wild country in the high Cascade Mountains.

“Some places are appropriate for logging on our national forest, and some places should be protected as wilderness,” Fernandez said. “Wilderness proposals don’t come up all that often.”

But Walden and others described the wilderness proposal as part of an ever-growing loss of public land. Walden (name corrected) said that as soon as one area is granted protection, environmental groups propose another.

"They don't want people on public land," Walden said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.