August 29, 2004

The Eugene Register-Guard

Politicians should act on Siskiyou compromise

Les AuCoin

Suddenly, ranchers and conservationists are laying down their weapons and extending olive branches over grazing on Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument near Ashland.

Conservationists want to remove cattle from the only monument in the United States created solely to protect biological diversity. And the ranchers, formally the environmentalists' arch foes? They want to remove their cattle, too.

In the turbulent history of the Cascade-Siskiyou Monument, this is a stunning development. The two sides and their sympathizers have feuded over this landscape for more than 20 years, and when President Clinton named it a national monument in the waning days of his presidency, residents of the Rogue Valley almost came to blows.

But the monument is an Oregon treasure. Located at a biological crossroads that bridges the Cascades and globally significant Siskiyou Mountains, the monument hosts plants and animals not found together anywhere else in the world. In the monument there are also newly discovered species yet to be named by scientists. In addition, the monument holds close to 100 ancient native sites and remnants of the historic Oregon-California Trail.

About a dozen ranchers hold valid grazing leases predating the creation of the monument. The monument's charter bans grazing if it is determined that cattle are creating an adverse effect on the area's unique biological features.

The Bureau of Land Management is studying cattle impacts now, but results are not expected until 2006. And even then, the agency says it probably will be years before the government issues a final decision.

For the ranchers, this investigation might not represent the proverbial writing on the wall, but it has made them hesitant to bet tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs on an uncertain result if the grazing study lands in court. As for the conservationists, they want to begin environmental restoration and protection of the monument's outstanding features without further delay or damage. These are the separate but dissecting interests that have brought the sides together.

Scientists have to be more thorough than the rest of us. But as one of the "rest of us," I have seen cattle impacts that are clearly harmful to the monument's distinct population of redband trout.

On Keene Creek, a tributary to Jenny Creek, streamside willows are often denuded, grasses are reduced to stubble, and in and around the water cattle tracks are ankle deep. Loss of riparian foliage can warm a stream to lethal temperatures for trout, a cold-water fish. Siltation from wading cattle is a near perfect way to ruin spawning beds.

An even better measure of cattle impacts is the difficulty researchers have had finding many places within the monument's 53,000 acres that have been spared from grazing to work as a "control area" - an area in which plants and animals can be compared and contrasted with those in heavily grazed areas.

Now that the ranchers and conservationists have come together, they have joined to lobby the Oregon congressional delegation. Last week, spokesmen for several legislators said their bosses were willing to consider the idea.

Well, they should be!

How often do political adversaries from opposite sides of the barbed-wire fence ask the delegation for the same thing? By orchestrating a public buyout, the legislators can resolve a major headache for themselves and the region, better protect Oregon's newest national monument, financially compensate an aggrieved portion of their constituency, and save the federal government millions of dollars in litigation and the cost of overseeing an economically marginal but costly program.

This is a rare win-win solution - the kind that problem-solving legislators usually love. When I was in the business, I would have thought of it as manna from heaven.

Sources say that the congressional delegation is generally supportive - but that Sen. Gordon Smith is the one who can make or break this compromise. For the good of the land, taxpayers and the ranchers themselves - here's hoping Smith gathers in this heaven-sent manna soon.

In the political wilderness, miracle alliances between traditional adversaries do not happen every day. This is refreshing nourishment to the body politic that should not be left to spoil.

Former U.S. Congressman Les AuCoin lives in Ashland. He was Oregon House majority leader from 1973 to 1975.

(Also appeared in Medford Mail-Tribune on August 29, 2004.)