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Presidential Preferences 

Cascade-Siskiyou: Under attack or saving a way of life?

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This month, the president slashed about 2 million acres from two national monuments in Utah. Now he and his administration are turning their eyes northwest, toward Oregon and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Democrats and Republicans, conservationists and extractors fell into predictable shouting matches at the prospect of a shrinking Cascade-Siskiyou. Meanwhile, the question of how the nation will manage public lands hangs in the balance.

The president based his decision on a memo by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, covering the reviewed monuments created or expanded in recent years. That memo included a close look at Cascade-Siskiyou, which could be next on Trump's list. Jes Burns, Oregon Public Broadcasting's Southern Oregon environmental reporter with EarthFix, suggests that an announcement could come by mid-January, when a delay in an Association of O&C Counties lawsuit requested by the federal government is set to expire.

A monument of ecological diversity

President Bill Clinton created the Cascade-Siskiyou monument by proclamation in 2000. President Barack Obama doubled its area during his final days in office in January.

In his proclamation, Obama cited the need to protect the monument's "ecological wonders and biological diversity." Hundreds of plant and animal species live there, making it, if not unique, exceedingly rare.

"It's a special place, a one-of a kind for Oregon and Northern California," said Reid Schuller, a plant ecologist who lives in Bend and has spent time studying and recreating in the monument—though he doesn't differentiate between the two activities.

Dave Willis, chair of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council, shares that sentiment. "It's a veritable Noah's Ark of biodiversity," he said. He also noted that it serves as an important land bridge for wildlife to move between distinct ecological zones. The Soda Mountain Wilderness sits inside the monument.

For many people, though, it's just flat out gorgeous and a place to retreat from the rush of daily life. The Cascade-Siskiyou is a monument to the grandeur of the West, rivaling other national parks.

"The natural setting of the monument is crucial to us," Ashland Mayor John Stromberg said. "We care about it, and we care for it. It's the theater in which life plays out in Ashland and this part of the Rogue Valley."

Bend resident Karen Lillebo has visited the monument many times with her husband. "Since we enjoyed playing in the outdoors often, we would get away to the Cascade-Siskiyou when we needed a change of scenery from our favorite places in the high desert of Central Oregon," she said. "You can go from rocky outcrops with juniper and sage, to luxurious conifer forests, to flower-filled meadows, to oak groves in short hikes or rides. We traveled by foot on some trips, and by horses for others."

The monument covers 170,000 acres, with 113,000 acres of it owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Most of the rest is private land.

"It's a living laboratory to try to understand the history of that area, a unique and important piece of our natural history here in the United States," said Brent Fenty, executive director of the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.

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Public support

When Zinke was gathering information for his memo, people submitted 2.8 million comments about national monuments, overwhelmingly commenting in favor of protecting public lands.

"Monuments clearly have broad public support," Fenty said. "The administration's decision is out of bounds from the public's view." That fits with a school of thought that holds that all Americans should have a say in how the country manages national monuments. Federal lands belong to all Americans, held in trust for future generations.

That isn't the only view, though. Trump, Zinke and their allies favor more listening to the people who live near it, in the belief that they better understand the area and have greater connection to the land. Those neighbors aren't as monolithic in their support. Many people in the cities of Ashland and Talent favor a monument, while many in Jackson and other rural counties worry about lost timber revenue at a time when they are slashing services because they lack money.

Meanwhile, the debate has become political. As Democrats tell it, Trump and Zinke are almost personally throwing torches into fragile ecosystems. Sen. Jeff Merkley said a reduction would be a "monumental mistake" and that Trump is "recklessly risking the future of irreplaceable biodiversity and natural wonder. 

Sen. Ron Wyden called Trump's reductions a "spiteful campaign to stop American families from having access to the lands they know and love."

State officials joined in, too. Gov. Kate Brown warned of "lasting generational implications," and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum used the issue and her title to raise money for an environmental advocacy organization. "The president should be protecting our national treasures – not stripping our lands of protection. Can I count on you to help me resist Trump and protect Oregon's public lands...," Rosenblum wrote.

Republicans are equally blunt.

Rep. Greg Walden, in whose district most of the Cascade-Siskiyou monument sits, blamed it for reduced property rights and local tax revenue, and invoked the devastating wildfires as proof that we must return to "responsible management of our public lands."

Zinke joined the debate, too, with a CNN op-ed defending reductions and saying that presidents including Obama and Clinton had weaponized national monuments "to prevent uses like timber harvesting and cattle grazing—ways of life for many American families and the lifeblood of many local economies."

Given those stark differences, the public debate makes it easy for some to choose a side. But scratch past the rhetoric and the issue is far more complicated.

Conflicting laws

The American Antiquities Act of 1906 gave presidents the authority to create national monuments without congressional help. The act's goal was to protect "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States."

Most presidents since then have exercised that authority, and there are now more than 125 national monuments of varying sizes around the country.

When President Clinton relied on the "scientific interest" part of the Antiquities Act to justify the Cascade-Siskiyou monument, few people argued with it.

That changed when Obama nearly doubled its size.

Most of the public lands in the expansion are so-called O&C lands, leftovers from a 19th century plan to link rail lines in Oregon and California. A 1937 law says that they are supposed to be managed for sustained timber production. Revenue from timber was supposed to partially offset lost property taxes and help pay for roads, law enforcement, libraries and other local services.

That creates a conflict. Presidents can create monuments, and those monuments don't allow for commercial logging, but the O&C lands are specifically set aside for commercial logging.

It's the sort of situation lawyers love. The Association of O&C Counties filed a lawsuit shortly after Obama announced his expansion. The AOCC is especially concerned because its 18 member counties share profits from timber harvests on O&C land.

"Our hope is the government will recognize that the expansion was inappropriate," said Doug Robertson of AOCC's liaison services. "When Congress designates land for a specific use in legislation, the president doesn't have the authority to say, 'I don't care about that use. I'm going to put it in a national monument.'"

Robertson cites a 1940 opinion by President Theodore Roosevelt's solicitor general that O&C lands can't be included in monuments because of the incompatibility. Coincidentally, the monument in question then was the Oregon Caves National Monument.

Defenders of the monument reply that the O&C Act does not call for heavily logging all O&C lands. It also provides for protecting watersheds, regulating stream flow and contributing to the local economy. A monument can be managed consistently with those goals.

“Just because there are 16,000 acres they can’t clear cut doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world,” the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council’s Dave Wills said. “Managing land for protection is much better for the Oregon economy than squeezing the last drop of blood out of the timber turnip.”

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Size matters

The Antiquities Act also specifies that national monuments "shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected." The Clinton monument was fine, opponents say, but Obama's expansion went beyond the smallest area required.

Supporters of the monument have science on their side, though. Obama's expansion came after rigorous review of the biological systems in the area, and more than 200 scientists endorsed it.

"[Scientists] determined that the boundaries were too small because of increasing human population, development, commodity use on adjacent land and climate change," Willis said. In fact, Obama went with a smaller expansion than scientists and Oregon's senators had recommended.

Shrinkage

Monument supporters argue that Trump doesn't have the legal authority to shrink national monuments. The Antiquities Act empowers presidents to create them, not cut them back, they say. A coalition of Native American tribes make that argument in a suit filed against the Bears Ears reduction. Conservationists and other groups have filed other lawsuits challenging the Utah reductions.

The president's supporters note that previous presidents have cut monuments, so there is precedent. Yet those past reductions were small adjustments. They didn't slash millions of acres, monument backers say.

The Western Values Project is spending $1 million on ads targeting Walden and two other House Republicans over monument reductions.

"In the heart of the west, 2 million acres of protected public land just got wiped off the map, selling off American heritage," the narrator ominously says in the ad.

In fact, the reductions have not sold off any lands. Privatization might be part of the long game for the Trump administration, but removing a national monument protection does not change the land's underlying ownership. If Trump reduced the Cascade-Siskiyou monument, all the land currently owned and managed by the BLM inside it would continue to be owned and managed by the BLM.

Whether that's enough depends on whom you ask.

Conflicting priorities

Are public lands economic engines, places for harvesting timber, mining, grazing cattle and other uses that Trump and Zinke want to see more of? Or are they engines of another sort, places where people go to recreate and connect with nature? Is there room for both?

The outcomes of lawsuits will help answer those questions, as will action—or inaction—by Congress. The Cascade-Siskiyou, Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, even the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are all parts of a larger debate.

More people are starting to engage in that debate. ONDA's Fenty reported a surge in interest in the group's Public Lands Leaders program.

Schuller, the Bend plant ecologist, recognizes the complex legal and policy conflicts. "I think that needs to be resolved in the courts or Congress," he said. "I'd have to live with it as citizen in a democracy."

He hopes it shakes out in favor of preservation, though. "The people of the Northwest would lose something special – we could almost say unique – if the monument were to be significantly reduced," he said. "It's not the kind of thing you can just come back in and rebuild if we allow it to be harmed."


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