Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument might double in size

The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is more than 66,000 acres of forest, meadows and canyons, known as an “ecological wonder” that sits at the crossroads of three mountain ranges in southern Oregon.

It’s a big and beautiful place, but soon it might get even bigger.

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley are pushing for an expansion to the monument, looking to protect another 65,000 acres of land. The senators initially proposed the idea in August, but the public got a chance to weigh in during a meeting held in Ashland on Friday evening.

Opponents of the expansion were in the minority, according to the Ashland Daily Tidings, but took the opportunity to question both the science and the legality of the proposal.

“We have not yet had the chance to sit down and have a conversation and look at the science from both sides to see if we need expansion,” rancher Jeremy Kennedy said. “Let’s slow down and do this the right way, not with the Antiquities Act.”

The Antiquities Act is the U.S. law passed in 1906 that allows sitting presidents to create national monuments from public lands to protect natural, cultural or scientific areas. It can also be used to expand the boundaries of existing national monuments.

The Oregon senators are hoping to persuade U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell to propose the expansion to President Obama, who could approve it in his last few months remaining in office.  

Proponents argue that the expansion is necessary to protect vital habitats and watersheds, especially in the face of climate change and efforts to develop tracts of land in southern Oregon.

“In order to adequately preserve the region’s ecological integrity, a growing number of scientists have concluded the boundary of the national monument should be expanded to better protect the diverse natural characteristics of the area,” Wyden and Merkley wrote in their original proposal to Jewell.

The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument sits at the intersection of the Cascade, Klamath and Siskiyou mountain ranges, home to a huge diversity of plant, animal and butterfly species. It was originally established by President Bill Clinton in June, 2000.

The additional 65,000 acres would be within an area of more than 100,000 acres of private and public land, similar to the patchwork makeup of the existing monument. Like the roughly 19,000 acres of private land already inside Cascade-Siskiyou, the 34,000 acres of private land inside the boundaries of the proposed expansion would remain private.

But distrust of the federal government over land-use issues is high in rural Oregon – from the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year, to the ongoing fight over designating the Owyhee Canyonlands as a national monument.

Most of the land included in the Cascade-Siskiyou expansion is already federally managed by the Bureau of Land Management, but some local ranchers are worried about losing grazing allotments if their private land falls within the new area of protection – a concern cited by opponents to the Owyhee monument as well.

“Without that our ranch would struggle, probably wouldn’t make it,” rancher Lee Bradshaw told Sen. Merkley at the public meeting Friday. “If we lose our permit, where will we go?”

Merkley told Bradshaw that handling of grazing allotments will get a lot of attention if the expansion goes through, and assured him that the monument status is flexible in such cases.

His arguments came in front of a mostly friendly audience in Ashland, where the majority of a crowd of roughly 400 – many clad in blue “Oregon is Monumental” T-shirts – supported the proposal.

“The Cascade-Siskiyou area, where three mountain ranges converge creating a unique and spectacular landscape seen nowhere else in the world, merits the attention that the community gave it today,” Merkley told the crowd. “I hope the Administration uses this input to develop a plan worthy of this special place.”