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Groups pushing for Crater Lake wilderness area

by ANDREW THEEN Oregonian 11/23/16

Crater Lake

Conservation groups are stepping up the pressure on Oregon’s congressional delegation to designate more than 500,000 acres of public land, including Crater Lake National Park, as a federal wilderness area.

Representatives from Oregon Wild and Environment Oregon on Monday delivered a petition with 37,000 signatures in support of the proposal to Sen. Ron Wyden’s office in Northeast Portland. The Democrat sits on the Senate’s energy and natural resources committee.

Several steps are required to achieve protected wilderness status, and they start with Congress. The bill, which couldn’t happen until 2017, would need to pass both chambers and garner President-elect Donald Trump’s signature to become law.

If approved, the Crater Lake Wilderness Area would be the largest in the state and 45th largest in the country. Oregon has 50 protected wilderness areas spanning more than 2.9 million acres. Congress last designated protected wilderness in the state in 2009, when it approved eight areas, including the Clackamas Wilderness in the Mount Hood National Forest.

Recreation economy

Wyden said that protecting natural treasures is a top priority for the Oregonians. “Continuing to grow our recreation economy depends on the ability to create new public recreation areas, as well as to maintain existing recreation opportunities and public lands,” he said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to hearing from Oregonians about further protections of Crater Lake.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley said through a spokesperson that he is interested in “continuing the conversation” on how to protect Crater Lake for generations to come.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Eugene, said he doesn’t anticipate any discussion on wilderness this year. Beyond that, it’s unclear: “Judging from statements by President-Elect Trump’s transition team and Republican congressional leadership, I will be fighting in the coming year to preserve already-protected areas and attempts to open sensitive inland and coastal areas from wholesale leasing and reckless exploitation,” he said in a statement.

Congress approved the Wilderness Act in 1964, and it was signed by President Lyndon Johnson to protect lands “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Commercial activities, such as logging, are prohibited in the more than 765 federally protected wilderness areas.

90-mile corridor

The proposed Crater Lake wilderness calls for establishing a 90-mile corridor of the Cascades — from Mount McLoughlin in Jackson County to Mount Thielsen and surrounding areas north of Crater Lake. The area stiches existing wilderness areas, such as the Sky Lakes Wilderness surrounding McLoughlin and the 55,000 acres of protected wilderness around Mount Thielsen — into one supersized territory.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, spoke in favor of the idea during a small news conference Monday and delivered the signatures to his congressional colleague’s office.

“There is nothing more iconic for Oregon than Crater Lake,” Blumenauer said of the state’s only National Park. He called on Congress to “protect this symbol.”

Tara Brown, wilderness campaign coordinator at Oregon Wild, said organizers have been working on the proposal for about four years and ramped up signature gathering in the past 12 months.

Brown said it’s important to protect old-growth forests in the Cascades and the surrounding landscape as climate change forces more wildlife to seek shelter in higher elevations. The more than 500,000-acre coverage area also includes the headwaters of the Rogue and Umpqua rivers.

“We tried to figure out where the most road-less areas were, where the best wildlife habitat was, how we could protect clean drinking water and just make a long corridor,” she said.

‘100 percent opposed’

But the enthusiasm isn’t shared by one of Oregon’s key officials and a top-ranking Republican congressman.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, is “100 percent opposed” to the proposed wilderness area, according to his communications director, Andrew Malcolm.

Walden has met with constituents and elected officials in the affected area who are concerned about “restricting the public’s access to the land, as well as the impact on forest and fire management in the area.”

New roads and motorized vehicles are prohibited in wilderness areas, but the proposal would not affect existing roads inside the national park or elsewhere. Recreational hunting, fishing and camping are allowed in wilderness areas, but some activities, like cycling are not.

Wyden will approach the proposed wilderness just as he does other legislation, according to a spokesperson. “Senator Wyden first goes through a process of stakeholder outreach, including holding meetings, to determine a path forward on any policy affecting Oregonians. That will be his approach to this one, as well.”


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