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Council Corner: Grow monument for flora, fauna, people

We all know we live in a special place. Sometimes it takes an act of good government to help us realize the truly unusual nature of our landscape.

In June 2000, with the authority Congress gave presidents starting with Teddy Roosevelt, President Bill Clinton issued a proclamation establishing the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, and placed 53,000 acres of publicly owned land to the south and east of Ashland within its boundaries.

With monument status, the forest around my home in the Greensprings took on new meaning. We’d always appreciated these woods, but monument designation gave us a different vocabulary and a new understanding of our surroundings. The presidential proclamation described the monument as “an ecological wonder” created by the “interface of the Cascade, Klamath and Siskiyou ecoregions, in an area of unique geology, biology, climate and topography.”

“Unique” is often over-used, but I soon learned it applies in this case. Cascade-Siskiyou is the only national monument established to protect biodiversity. It turns out that the intersection of multiple mountain ranges here produces a very rich flora and fauna. This spectacular variety of plant and animal species and close association of ecological communities is found nowhere else. It is also home to treasured natural landmarks, including Pilot Rock and Soda Mountain.

In the 16 years since designation, the monument has become a hiking mecca and a living laboratory for school children. It has also become a focus of significant biological study that has affirmed the area’s special qualities — and its vulnerability.

A diverse group of scientists with experience in monument fieldwork has been warning that existing boundaries are insufficient to protect monument biodiversity, particularly in the face of climate change. The group has proposed an expansion into adjacent and nearby public lands that will allow critters and plants to move to different habitats and higher elevations in order to adjust to rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and general climate shifts.

Proposed expansion areas could extend as far northwest as Grizzly Peak, south to lower elevations below Pilot Rock and Soda Mountain and northeast to cold headwater streams of Jenny Creek. Ideally, specific acreage would be determined by ecosystem needs, and not by artificial political boundaries.

Here in Ashland, we appreciate the intrinsic, aesthetic value of our local wild areas. We are also beginning to understand the potential recreational and economic opportunities offered by an expanded monument.

The Bureau of Land Management manages the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument with the overriding goal of protecting and restoring the area’s ecological values. Privately held lands within outer monument boundaries are unaffected by the designation and continue to be governed by county land-use rules. But the protected, federally owned acreage remains, as it should, open to the public for varied users including hikers, nature-lovers, hunters and horseback riders.

Expansion could protect our viewshed, grow our outdoor recreation opportunities and give us yet another means to entice visitors to come to town, and then stay awhile longer. A community that can boast of both a Shakespeare festival and a national monument has something for everyone.

Recognizing the need to protect the ecological sensitivity of our region as well as the potential recreational and economic benefits, Ashland’s City Council and Chamber of Commerce board, as well as Talent’s City Council and Chamber board, have all unanimously endorsed monument expansion.

Now we need President Obama to step up. Just as the original monument came through presidential proclamation, expansion would likely require executive action. Sixteen presidents, beginning with TR and including the current officeholder, have used the federal Antiquities Act as a powerful conservation tool to protect historical sites and scientifically important areas as national monuments.

President Obama still has five more months in office. A science-based expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument could be one of his last, best acts.

Pam Marsh is a member of the Ashland City Council.