Culling Biodiversity in Cascade-Siskiyou Benefits Nobody

Interior Secretary Zinke has called for reversing the expansion of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument - the first monument established to protect biodiversity – based on dubious claims about the monument’s damage to local communities.

The ink had barely dried on Trump’s proclamation shrinking Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called for similar reductions to Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

This 112,000-acre swath of land straddling the Oregon-California border nearly doubled in size during the final days of President Obama’s tenure. And while the amount of land at stake pales in comparison to that which lost protection in Utah – a combined 2 million acres – the status of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is just as critical. Cascade-Siskiyou is singular among national monuments in that it was not established to protect a singular geological feature or an area of cultural importance. Instead, it was designed to protect biodiversity.

Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management

The convergence of the Klamath, Siskiyou, and Cascade mountain ranges in the southernmost portion of Oregon provides a habitat unlike anything else found in North America. On its western flank sits mountainous Northwest rainforest, while on the eastern flank the alpine terrain of the Cascade crest abuts the high desert of central Oregon. The monument itself is situated across the high-elevation land bridge formed by the three mountain ranges, which has enabled plants and animals to spread inward from the two extremes and evolve in isolation. The result is that this region is home to more than 130 different species of butterflies, numerous endemic fish, plant, and bird species, and several endangered species like the northern spotted owl.

Obama’s expansion of the monument was specifically designed to enhance protections for this biodiversity. Despite the intentions of the original monument declaration (made in 2000 by President Clinton), biodiversity is difficult to see and ecological boundaries were largely lost when the proposed monument boundaries became subject to politics. The result was a monument that failed to protect the very feature that enables Cascade-Siskiyou to host such a wide array of life – connectivity between the rainforests, alpine, river valleys, and desert. After 17 years of urging from ecologists, the monument expansion was designed to fully protect the land bridge by restricting logging in critical areas of the Cascades that serve as passageways for animals.

However, in a fervor of undoing monuments that Obama designated just before leaving office, Zinke has decided that ecologists are wrong – the biodiversity of the region will be just fine within the monument’s original boundaries. The buffer zone created by the expansion is unnecessary to the monument’s goal, while the people around the monument that are suffering from restrictions on logging, recreation, and grazing enacted by the monument regulations.

But that viewpoint stands at odds with facts on the ground. When Oregon senators introduced a bill in 2015 that would have put in place protections over much of the same area as the expansion, around 75% of the comments were in favor of protecting the land from logging. That included locals – the towns of Ashland and Talent, which border the monument, officially endorsed the legislation, along with numerous local businesses interested in boosting ecotourism.

And while the logging industry spoke out against the monument expansion, leaving the land open for business would hardly have revolutionized Oregon’s flagging logging industry. In the absence of conservation protections, the BLM estimates a sustained annual timber yield of 4-6 million board feet from the acreage added to the monument last year. At current lumber prices (which are currently on the rise) that’s only about $2.5 million per year – 0.2% of the total annual value of Oregon’s logging industry. The Trump administration may have promised to restore logging jobs, but even decimating the habitat that Cascade-Siskiyou’s biodiversity relies on won’t make a real dent in reviving rural economies.

Zinke’s argument for shrinking Cascade-Siskiyou also rests on the false notion that the monument is detrimental to recreation. The Secretary has previously made comments insinuating that hunting and fishing are prohibited inside the monument, while in reality the monument regulations make no mention of these activities and the BLM allows them. In addition, Zinke’s report to Trump states that “remaining usable roads in [Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument] are unpassable and unsuitable for use.” Locals beg to differ, noting that there are hundreds of miles of road through the monument expansion that see frequent use (shockingly, they didn’t disintegrate in the year since Obama’s expansion of the monument).

Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management

The remaining strike against the monument expansion is its impact on grazing – a complicated issue that has, justifiably, produced local hostility to the monument among ranchers. While nothing in the original monument designation or the expansion limit grazing, an environmental assessment by the BLM found that grazing does in fact pose a threat to the biodiversity the monument is intended to protect. Thus, the BLM is actively buying ranchers out of their land and is no longer issuing new grazing permits – effectively forcing out remaining ranchers. In this case, the local concerns that Zinke cites are real and difficult to address, although the Secretary has also failed to address whether overturning the entirety of the monument expansion is necessary or sufficient to protect ranchers in southern Oregon.

Unfortunately, Zinke’s dubious claims about the monument expansion’s damage and widespread local and national support for the expansion likely won’t be enough to save it. If – when – the monument is undercut by the Trump administration, finding solutions to preserve the ecological integrity of the land without a monument designation will be key. Perhaps the most promising, long-term route forward is the legislation proposed back in 2015 - the Oregon and California Land Grant Act offers a roadmap for protecting the land currently within the monument expansion through a variety of recreation and conservation designations. Since the bill has already been introduced to the Senate, anyone interested in the future of Cascade-Siskiyou’s biodiversity can support this plan by simply calling and writing their representatives. In the absence of federal legislation, it’s also possible to support the monument by donating to nonprofits, like Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, that support ecological research and recreation within the monument and strive to increase public awareness of the monument’s biological treasures.

Cover photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management

Published: December 22, 2017

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Michael GrawExplorer

Corvallis

I'm a landscape and adventure photographer based out of Corvallis, Oregon. Backpacker, triathlete, and skiier - always with a camera in hand. Look for me in the mountains or online @WanderingSolePhotography.