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Protecting Alex Hole

APPLEGATE — Two groups that don't always play together are coming together to protect a rare, spring-fed alpine meadow straddling the Oregon-California border, one that has been riddled for decades by the hooves and cowpies of illegally grazing cattle.

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest this week teamed with its occasional adversary — The Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center — to build a seasonal fence around a place called Alex Hole along the Siskiyou Crest within the forest's remote Northern California holding.

The metal fence includes a gate and is built high enough to block meadow access by cattle drifting over from a Klamath National Forest grazing allotment but not so high as to block the black-tailed deer and Roosevelt elk that visit the meadow.

"Cows can't jump," said George Sexton, KS Wild's conservation director. "Deer and elk can. What we're doing here is good for the botanical (area) and the wildlife."

The forest and the conservation group have found themselves on opposite sides of the table over some other forest issues, such as timber sales and off-road vehicle access, but they found common ground on the meadow.

"There are a lot of public-lands managers who we work closely with and have similar objectives with," said Joseph Vaile, the group's executive director. "We agree in some places and disagree in others.

"It takes outside community groups to get this kind of work done," Vaile said.

Alex Hole is at 6,000 feet above sea level and sits along the Pacific Crest Trail between Seiad Valley, California, to the south and the Applegate Valley to the north. It contains springs that are the headwaters of Alex Creek, which flows into Elliott Creek and, eventually, into Applegate Lake. It rests at the base of a cliff and is an alpine oasis as well as home to a cornucopia of flora and fauna.

Cows have been straying from the Klamath Forest for decades, and it was a well-known problem when the area was a candidate for protective botanical-area status in the late 1980s while under the Rogue River National Forest, forest spokeswoman Chamise Kramer said.

However, its dearth of rare plants, its remote location and the "management challenge" of the drifting cattle ultimately led to it being dropped from the forest's 1990 Resource Management Plan, Kramer said.

"If you have a botanical area, you need to manage it," Kramer said. "It was a management challenge because of the cattle."

KS Wild has unsuccessfully sued the Klamath National Forest to keep the cattle in check, Sexton said.

The forest recently approached KS Wild and asked the group whether it would partner on a fence-building project such as the one it did last year at Wagner Gap to keep illegal off-road vehicles out of a meadow.

"We jumped at that," Sexton said. "We wanted to walk our talk on this."

The Forest Service supplied the materials and did the design in-house. KS Wild provided the muscle to craft the quarter-mile, horseshoe-shaped fence around the meadow, using the cliff as the final barrier.

It's made with unbarbed metal wire designed to be taken down in the winter so it doesn't collapse under snow and doesn't hurt wildlife passing over it, Kramer said.

Sexton said getting the cows out of the pasture and adding no new fecal pollution should allow the springs to bounce back rather quickly.

Vaile stressed that his group supports many other projects on the forest, such as wildfire hazard-reduction and new trail construction projects, and he expects future resource-protection partnerships such as Alex Hole.

"That's what we should do on public lands," Vaile said.

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

A view down to Alex Hole from the cliffs of the Siskiyou Crest.
KS Wild volunteer Cooper Rodgers, left, and Forest Service rangeland management specialist Mark Hocken construct a gate for new fencing at Alex Hole along the Siskiyou Crest. [Photos courtesy KS Wild]