Westmont Magazine A Monumental Victory
When last interviewed, Dave Willis ’74 was heading up Sierra Treks and taking politicians, government officials, and media on “Littlefoot Expeditions” to see for themselves the remarkable biological diversity of Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains. Since 1983, he’s sought wilderness status for 38,000 acres of the Soda Mountain area where the Siskiyous join the Cascade Range. He’s also braved the Washington, D.C. wilderness to testify at hearings and “commune with public servants.”
As public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Soda Mountain area has been threatened by commodity abuse and increasing numbers of off-road vehicles.
“While the land is largely unsuitable for logging and grazing, a few ranchers continue to lease overgrazing privileges at below-market prices,” Dave notes. “Barely passable Jeep trails degrade sensitive and remote areas.”
Dave’s efforts in the early 1990s gained a 10-year public land logging moratorium for the area, although he says private timberland continues to be logged heavily.
In 1987, he and fellow members of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council achieved a victory by persuading BLM to recommend that Congress designate 6,000 Soda Mountain acres as wilderness. But it took 13 years more of persistent small steps to get the next big win.
In June 2000, President Clinton declared over 52,000 acres of public land around Soda Mountain as the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. The monument proclamation bans mining, commercial logging, and off-road use of vehicles. It also closes the most egregious Jeep trail and directs BLM to remove commercial livestock if studies show grazing to be incompatible with sustaining natural systems.
BLM must develop a management plan for the new monument. Keeping the planning process on-track and encouraging good implementation (e.g., closing more Jeep trails) will keep Dave and friends busy for years more — as will attempts to include adjacent California public lands in this Oregon-only monument. “What’s a state line got to do with a national designation?” Dave asks.
“The administration’s monument designations are a welcome, incremental step toward preserving areas of unique biological value,” says Dave. “Making BLM responsible for more protected areas may help make BLM more conservation minded.”
Dave’s persistence over the years eventually caught the attention of BLM’s chief overseer in the Department of the Interior. Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited the area twice, hiked into the wilderness, and met with Dave and interested parties.
Dave and others continue to pursue another larger monument for the Siskiyou forest to the west. Next steps for Soda Mountain include buying private forest land within the monument boundaries from willing sellers and getting congressional wilderness designation for monument backcountry. Dave is sad that it takes so long to save an ecologically valuable area with such little commercial value. He says opposition to the monument came mostly from uninformed people stirred up by false rumors.
As an intersection for the diverse plants and animals of several distinct ecological regions, the Soda Mountain area is unique. The Cascade and botanically diverse Siskiyou Mountain forests, Rogue River Valley oak-savannah, the Oregon high desert, and California’s Shasta Valley chaparral all meet there.
“People bond with this place,” Dave says. “The scenery includes steep canyons, breathtaking vistas, sunlit oak groves, wildflower-strewn meadows, hidden waterfalls, and towering pine, cedar, and fir forests. Much of it is wild and should remain wild.” He calls it an “ecological mulligan stew.”
In a letter to Dave, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber wrote, “Your energy and dedication in turning this idea into reality serves as a model for others to follow.” A June 10, 2000 article in Portland’s Oregonian newspaper names Dave as the moving force behind the preservation efforts.
“‘The earth is the Lord’s,’ though we rarely treat it that way,” Dave reflects. “I can’t shake the human job description in Genesis 2:15: ‘Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it.’
“The Hebrew there means ‘serve and guard.’ Protecting God-created land by ‘serving and guarding’ it is a big part of what it means to be a God-created human creature today. I can’t help but approach it from a theological perspective because, in my gut, that’s how I view the world.”