Of the 350 miles of roads in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument outside the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area, how many should remain open?

Of the 350 miles of roads in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument outside the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area, how many should remain open?

That is one of the questions the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is asking the public to help answer for a transportation management plan being prepared for the 53,827-acre monument located where the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains intertwine east of Ashland.

The BLM's Medford District is seeking comments to identify issues it will address in the plan's environmental assessment. An open house to answer questions and allow a public review of an intensive inventory of the monument will be held Feb. 16 in Ashland.

Comment deadline is April 2. Requests for comments were sent out to more than 800 people who already have expressed interest in the monument's planning process.

Although the BLM's 2008 monument record of decision and resource management plan evaluated the area's transportation system, it was successfully appealed by conservationists on the basis that it was not in compliance with the monument proclamation. The current planning process is the result of a settlement of that appeal between the agency and conservationists.

In addition to determining which roads will remain open, the plan also will indicate which roads will be closed or decommissioned, explained Howard Hunter, the assistant monument manager.

One of the plan's goals is to retain a network of roads within the monument that would allow for ecosystem restoration as well as access, he said. However, the agency will protect valid rights for leases, permits and rights of way into the monument, which contains several parcels of private property within its boundaries, he added.

Every aspect of travel in the monument, from off-highway vehicles, snowmobiles and bicycles to hiking and Nordic skiing, will be addressed in the planning process, he said.

In preparation, the BLM has completed an exhaustive inventory of the roads and culverts within the monument.

"We know where every culvert is," Hunter said.

The 53,827-acre monument was established in 2000 to protect what scientists describe as unusually rich biological diversity in the mountain region where the Cascade and Klamath mountains meet. It was the first in the nation created solely on the basis of biodiversity.

In addition to the appeal settlement, officials say changes in the monument since then require an updated system. Those changes include the congressional creation of the 24,100-acre wilderness in 2009 and the agency's purchase of some 3,000 acres of private land within the monument from willing buyers.

The road system within the wilderness is being addressed in the wilderness stewardship plan and environmental assessment that is nearly completed.

For Dave Willis, chairman of the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council and a longtime proponent of the monument's creation, the transportation plan is long in coming.

"Almost 12 years after the monument proclamation called for an adequate transportation management planning process, we're glad the BLM is finally beginning one that we hope will be in compliance with the proclamation's protection mandate," he said.

"We look forward to the BLM implementing the monument proclamation's protection mandate without evasive fudging," he added.

Inventory information and maps of the monument are available at www.blm.gov/or/districts/medford/plans/index.php. The information also can be reviewed at the BLM office in Medford but appointments need to be scheduled ahead of time.

The open house will be from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Bellview Grange, 1050 Tolman Creek Road, Ashland.

Comments cam be submitted during the open house, via email at BLM_OR_MD_Mail@blm.gov, or in writing to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Attention: Kathy Minor, 3040 Biddle Road, Medford, OR 97504.

For further information or to be added to the mailing list, contact Minor at 541-618-2245 or through the above email address. Comments focusing on specific sites or issues are most helpful, officials say.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.