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Impassioned, emotional and heartfelt; many citizens, officials and experts got a chance to speak their mind about a proposal to expand the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument during a Klamath County Commissioners town hall Tuesday night.

The crowd overflowed from the commissioners’ meeting room into the government center hallways and secondary meeting room with citizens in favor and opposed to the potential expansion. If approved the proposal, initially brought forward by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, would nearly double its current scale of 66,000 acres to what was described by several in attendance as a “checkerboard” of public land to be maintained by the Bureau of Land Management.

The current monument was established in 2000 under executive order through the Antiquities Act by President Bill Clinton. It is under these same executive branch powers that Merkley, along with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and other supporters, hope will result in a recommendation by Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to President Barack Obama to expand the monument’s size to further protect forests, biodiversity and watersheds.

The proposal

Opening the hearing was Amy Amrhein, southern Oregon field representative for Sen. Merkley’s office, detailing the reasoning behind the proposal. Amrhein called the map presented as a first draft of possible expansion of public lands based on a wide range of policy and proposals in the public sphere for several years. She emphasized that if there is an expansion, details of the final proposed area would be decided in a management plan subject to a public review process, while also citing the importance of input from local Native American tribes.

The public hearing was coordinated by the commissioners in response to recent hearings also held in Medford and Ashland, where a general sentiment permeated that public input was not proactively sought in advance of a possible pending recommendation for monument expansion.

At the podium

Elected officials and candidates for elective office took turns at the podium. Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, was the only of these to speak in favor of monument expansion. Seven opposed noted reduction in timber harvests, grazing allotments, improper land management resulting in increased fire risk, federal government overreach and closures preventing public access to lands as cause to halt further expansion of the monument. Additionally several letters and emails were summarized by Commissioner Tom Mallams, the majority of those received opposed to the expansion.

Citizens wishing to speak signed up in advance for two-minute time slots. The commissioners did their best to give all present a chance to support their stance. Proponents of the expansion spoke first, 30 in all pleading their case for expansion. It was a varied group, from ranchers to private landowners to scientists and concerned citizens, urging that the area designated for protection is preserved for generations to come for its incredible biodiversity and importance to regional watersheds. Among those in favor was Diarmuid McGuire, owner of Green Springs Inn, which is located within the monument’s boundaries. McGuire stated that the monument’s establishment has not affected his ability to operate his business nor impacted his neighbors from living their lives.

“The rules before the monument are still applied today for all lands within the boundary,” said McGuire, my customers who come to hunt and fish still come here. My neighbors who ranch are still ranching. This is an opportunity, not a threat.”

Differing methods

While the general sentiment found much common ground in wanting the area to be preserved, the method for going about its conservation proved to be the most divisive matter expressed. While the meeting was kept respectful, the crowd observing the hearing was decidedly opposed, loud cheers following nearly every single speaker that railed against expansion.

“I agree there is amazing flora and fauna, but I don’t recognize the monument,” said Ryan Mallory, a concerned resident in opposition. “Whether you’re in the biodiversity crowd or forest-use crowd, we are all united in wanting these lands preserved. I love these forests, but it’s a slippery slope.”

Concern of finding a balance in economic stability matched with sustainability were prime arguments against, while many also questioned why expansion was necessary when much of the territory is already covered as federally protected forestlands under the O&C Land Act of 1937.

Government control

“People don’t want to mar this land, everyone is environmentally conscious,” said Richard Lemming, speaking in opposition. “When this act first came in our society wasn’t so environmentally minded, but now we are. I object to the method, why don’t we take our time and get a lot of local input on the matter. A lot of us would like to see the land not be under government control. The people of Klamath County want to preserve this area and we can do it.”

All three commissioners were quick to point out that no final decision would be made that night, that the hearing was simply to collect input from the community and reflect on the responses before rendering a recommendation. However, each expressed concerns in the method sought for approval of the proposal and legality of the action, mirroring much of the arguments made about a lack of local input being sought to date.

Lawsuit escalation

“I have some definite reservations about the expansion,” said Klamath County Commissioner Jim Bellet. “I would hate to see this escalate to the counties suing the federal government over this. There are problems with the O&C Act, and the proposed map is a checkerboard, which is kind of ridiculous. That makes it tough to manage, especially when dealing with landowners who are landlocked inside there.”

“People in general in some subsets get used to getting trampled by our government, whether state or federal,” added Mallams. “When things like this come up it really disturbs me to a tremendous degree. I believe in compromise and balance, and I don’t think there has been balance here at all. We need to be proactively involved as a community, we can’t solve all of our problems but if we don’t try it might get worse and worse.”

Commissioner Kelley Minty-Morris encouraged citizens who didn’t get a chance to speak to provide their comments on the matter via email at bocc@klamathcounty.org or to call the commissioners’ offices at 541-883-5100. “I am nervous about doing anything quickly,” said Minty-Morris before closing the hearing. “I’m hesitant to do anything until we have more and better conversations about public lands. I’m nervous about doing anything until we come together more and find common ground.”

email kliedtke@heraldandnews.com @kliedtkeHN