Monumental myth

Lamenting the demise of a plan for a new national monument in the North State

Author Allan Stellar camped alone while exploring the area known as the Siskiyou Crest.

Author Allan Stellar camped alone while exploring the area known as the Siskiyou Crest.

Photo Courtesy of Allan Stellar

About the author:

Allan Stellar is a psychiatric nurse who lives in Concow. He is the author of the Nov. 7, 2013, CN&R cover feature titled “Lassen Solitaire.” Follow him on Twitter at @AllanStellar.

I am carrying a fucking refrigerator on my back. At least, that’s how big my backpack feels as I sweat, grunt and fart up this mountain. And I ain’t too bright of a person to start such a climb by eating a plate full of pancakes. They sit like lead in my gut as I haul this Frigidaire uphill, climbing switchback after switchback. I’m here, in the nosebleed section of Northern California, to investigate a proposed mythological national monument.

I started this hike alone in Seiad Valley, elevation 1,300 feet. From there, the Pacific Crest Trail climbs 5,000 feet in 6 1/2 miles. To put that into perspective, many hikers have the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National Park on their bucket list. Bright Angel climbs 4,300 feet in 9.6 miles. I think of this comparison as I belly up the trail with my pack that, with water and food for four days, weighs 40 pounds.

Seiad Valley (pronounced sigh-add) is a tiny town of a couple hundred souls northwest of Yreka in Siskiyou County. The Klamath River passes through the town and it was near here, on a tributary of the Klamath River, that Bigfoot was famously filmed back in 1967 by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin. You might remember the film—a grainy image of a hairy beast that nonchalantly wanders into the forest. The controversial Super 8 film was an economic boon to the area and today you can find all sorts of Bigfoot lodges, Bigfoot RV parks, Bigfoots painted on restaurant walls, Bigfoot statues and Bigfoot T-shirts and trinkets sold in gas stations and convenience stores. Finding the actual creature might prove to be a more difficult endeavor.

You’ll also find lots of State of Jefferson flags flying in Siskiyou County. As in other parts of rural Northern California, secession is a popular notion. The post office boasts the State of Jefferson written right under the U.S. Post Office insignia. You’ll even find the Jefferson flag flying over the fire department. Those are two stories worth writing about: A right-wing secessionist movement and the search for a mythical creature. Both fictional; a pipe dream and a myth.

The proposed Siskiyou Crest National Monument is another nonexistent entity, mostly unwanted by the locals, and indeed, a perceived threat to the Seiad Valley way of life.

Stellar checks out the spectacular views during a break on his hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.

Photo by Allan Stellar

It is hard to miss all the “No Monument” signs; they are everywhere in this neck of the woods. In 2009, an Ashland, Ore., environmental organization called KS Wild (Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center) proposed merging the Siskiyou and Red Buttes wilderness areas, some Bureau of Land Management land, two national forests that bridge Oregon and California, the Cascade-Siskiyou and Oregon Caves national monuments, and some private land into one huge 600,000-acre monument. The locals got especially fired up by a leaked Department of the Interior document revealing that President Obama had planned to create 14 large new national monuments, including this one.


The reaction among the locals of Seiad Valley, and other communities, was immediate and intense. Organizations against the monument arose quickly, mostly coinciding with Tea Party fervor. It became a cause de rigueur among the local right-wingers. The Siskiyou Board of Supervisors publicly came out against the creation of the national monument. (Unsurprisingly, the board voted to support creating the State of Jefferson.)

“They say they want to take away our hunting and fishing rights,” said a young woman at the Seiad Store when I first arrived in town. “I’ve only been here three weeks, but if you ask anyone, they’ll certainly give you an earful.”

My wife, Joni, who came along to drop me off and pick me up when I was done with the five-day solo trek, was nervous about leaving our car parked overnight with its prominent Sierra Club and Pacific Crest Trail decals and a bumper sticker that depicts stumps of trees and the caption “Daddy, what’s a forest?” We’d wandered into a part of California where environmentalists are about as welcome as a long-haired hippie wearing a tie-dye Solar Power Now! T-shirt in a Koch brothers corporate board meeting. We’d be lucky to get out of there with all our tires still properly inflated.

Into the local café for breakfast. The place was a tad bit famous, having been selected by the Travel Channel many years ago as one of the World’s Best Places to Pig Out. On the wall were Polaroid shots of skinny young men, all of them probably thru-hikers, who managed to wolf down five huge, platter-size pancakes. Joni and I enjoyed some of the (smaller) pancakes and talked to a couple of hikers and a few of the locals.

Map illustration by Sandy Peters

I had spoken to Joseph Vaile, the executive director of KS Wild, earlier in the week. Vaile told me that KS Wild was no longer proposing such a monument. “The people who were pushing for that have all left our organization,” he informed me. The main instigator had moved up the environmental ladder to the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco. When I told the people at the café that KS Wild wasn’t pushing for the monument anymore, a friendly young man, waiting for his breakfast, piped up.

“It doesn’t matter—Obama wants a legacy and he’ll just create the monument anyway.”

That young man, Bruce Johnson, owner of the Mid River RV Park, is popular among the Pacific Crest Trail hikers who pass through town. He has a brilliant smile and a cheerful, friendly air about him. He complained that, should the monument be created, his business would be under the thumb of government. “I worry about the onerous regulations and the loss of our hunting and fishing rights,” he said.

He went on to state that, “I feel insulted that anybody would think that this area needs to be protected from its residents. We love it here, we don’t want to spoil anything,” he said, adding that there isn’t anything spectacular up on the crest.

A woman at the café counter agreed: “It’s not worth anything. There’s nothing of value up there.”

Nothing of value? Well, I thought, I’ll just have to go check that out.

This 18-foot-tall statue of Bigfoot is located in Happy Camp, which is near where two filmmakers claim to have spotted the creature back in the 1960s.

Photo by Allan Stellar

The Pacific Crest Trail winds its way through 50 miles of the proposed new monument. I would hike it and take a look for myself. Then I’d consider the arguments for creating such a monument. So, I set off.

An old abandoned fire lookout, built in the ’30s, sits near the top of the climb. By the time I reached it, it was getting late in the day. I could have camped at the neglected lookout, but the last time I camped at a fire lookout, a park ranger drove about five hours round-trip to my home to cite me for disobeying a national park closure order and illegal camping—a Citation so trivial that Arlo Guthrie could probably fashion a 27-minute song about the whole episode (see “Perils of journalism,” Newslines, Nov. 28, 2013). No, I wasn’t going to take any chances sleeping at a fire lookout again. I’ve been rehabilitated.

I found a spring that supplied the lookout with water, off the path, with more than a bit of what hikers call “exposure” to get to it. I watched my step, knowing that a slip on the narrow ledge would lead to a headline in the local newspaper about yet another foolish middle-aged adventurer who plunged to his death. The Siskiyou Mountains are jagged. Slopes are vertical. It’d be best not to trip.

These mountains are an anomaly among mountains in North America. Most ranges align themselves north to south. The Siskiyous are east to west. As such, they form the middle part of a large letter H, with one side being the Coastal Range and the other the Sierra Cascades. The mountains form a natural high-altitude land bridge for flora and fauna. With climate change, as the lower elevations become more and more inhospitable to wildlife, the higher-altitude corridors have become very important. Journey (aka OR-7), the wandering wolf, sojourned for a brief time in the Siskiyou Mountains before settling down about 75 miles northeast of here. When wolves recolonize the Coastal Range of California, it will be Journey’s progeny traveling across this land bridge to make that happen. And wolves aren’t the only animals that make use of this land bridge. I also saw a herd of elk grazing in the valley far below the crest.

A KS Wild brochure states that “Wolverine, marten, lynx, fisher, mountain lion, bear, and elk currently inhabit or have been recently sighted in the area. The area also provides home range and connectivity habitat for the gray wolf, grizzly bear and pronghorn sheep, mammals that are currently extirpated” from the region.

But it isn’t just fauna that find the corridor important. Flora do, too. I reached the crest of the Siskiyous late afternoon in the middle of June to find myself amid myriad wildflowers. There, in a patch of earth of about a square yard, I looked down upon seven different species of wildflowers blooming next to each other. Table Mountain in its springtime glory doesn’t compare to this grand display of wildflowers. This small bit of crest has flowers from the Sierra, the Cascades, the Great Basin, the Sacramento Valley floor and the Coastal Range. More than 3,000 species of plants are found here. On the trail, I met a retired government employee who used to work with the natural resources of the area. He told me that the botanists in the U.S. Forest Service went gaga over this rare display of flowers.

An abandoned fire lookout on rugged terrain overlooks the valley below.

Photo by Allan Stellar

The retiree, dressed in blue jeans and sporting a salt and pepper beard, laughed when I mentioned the monument. “Is the idea dead?” I asked. The reply: “I hope not. I don’t think so. Something should be done to protect this.”

That night, I “cowboy camped” under the stars among the flowers at a place with the racially insensitive name of Darkey Creek. A newish sign announces the trail down to the creek. Being racially insensitive seems to be a theme in this area. A man at the café back in Seiad Valley told me that the local Indian tribe wants the dams taken out of the Klamath River so that the white man will leave. Dam removal is yet another sensitive topic in this region—and yet another reason why environmentalists are seen as a threat to the Seiad Valley way of life. Restoring salmon habitat isn’t popular among the locals and the ranchers of the region. Not surprisingly, Congressman Doug LaMalfa also is opposed to removing the dams.

The next morning, clouds that looked a bit angry blew over. My sleeping bag was wet with dew.

As I walked along the crest, to my right I could see miles and miles of forest with clear cuts in them. I tried to count the number of cuts, but quit when I reached 30. To my left, I saw no clear cuts because I was looking into wilderness. A snowy Preston Peak, tallest in the Siskiyou Wilderness, loomed behind me; the huge, majestic Mount Shasta was to my right.

The crest is normally snowbound and sometimes impassable into July. I was taking this hike in mid-June and the snow had been gone for some time. Over the last 10 years, drought has become a way of life. Does this portend our future as CO2 climbs above the 400-parts-per-million mark permanently (and for the first time in 700,000 years)? The answer to that question will be clear in the lifetime of most people reading this article.

The second day passed with more flowers, more beauty, more crest walking and more solitude. The Siskiyous don’t have the dramatic beauty of Yosemite Valley nor the stunning glamour of the Sierra. It doesn’t have the Ahhh! and Wow! factors of most national parks. It’s a simple, working-class beauty. When it comes to monuments, the Siskiyou Crest would be like protecting the red-headed stepchild of public lands.

Bruce Johnson, owner of Mid River RV Park, is one of the many Siskiyou County residents who oppose the proposed monument. He fears the government would over-regulate the land therein.

Photo by Allan Stellar

Which is precisely why this area needs to become a monument. Its value isn’t measured solely by its sex appeal to humans; its value lies in its utility to critters and its biodiversity. Its uniqueness. Its function as a superhighway for flora and fauna. Think of it as a monument preserved not for human enjoyment, but because of its importance for the fur bearers and the winged ones, for the plants and for the trees. Aren’t they worthy of having their own special place on the planet?

Monuments are created by presidential decree, a power provided by the Antiquities Act of 1906. Teddy Roosevelt used the law to create the first national monument at Devils Tower in Wyoming. He also used the act to create Grand Canyon National Monument. Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Acadia, Olympic, Grand Teton and many other national parks, started out as monuments—or were greatly enlarged by the incorporation of nearby national monuments. This power to create monuments makes some conservatives, including LaMalfa, nervous. LaMalfa sent out an email to constituents earlier this year supporting a measure that would strip a president’s ability to create monuments without the approval of Congress. The first-term congressman said it was a property rights issue. Was LaMalfa referring to the Siskiyou Crest?

Bill Clinton created 16 national monuments, many during his last few weeks in office. Recently, President Obama laid out 600,000 acres in southern New Mexico to be our newest national monument, a plan that had the support of several environmental organizations. Yes, there was some local resistance—that seems to pretty much always be true. But monuments need to have some group or person backing them. John Muir was that tireless advocate for Yosemite. Enos Mills was that advocate for Rocky Mountain National Park. Without KS Wild’s advocacy, where is that champion for the Siskiyous?

I camped the second night at 7,300 feet along an exposed ridge. The clouds still looked angry but they’d passed over the previous couple of nights without dumping any precipitation. I was tired. Lazy. No need to set up a tent. I would cowboy camp a second night.

About 2 in the morning I awoke to snow. Yes, snow. I quickly dug out the tent rainfly from my pack and draped the thing over me and my sleeping bag. It was cold and I thought to myself that if I got wet, I could easily expire here on this summit ledge due to hypothermia.

I lived. The rainfly did its job and at 6 a.m. I shook off about half an inch of snow, packed up my belongings and headed out for another day of exploration.

Anti-monument signs are ubiquitous throughout the area.

Photo by Allan Stellar

The trail took me through some old-growth forest. The diversity of the trees in the Siskiyous, and in this section, is simply amazing. You just don’t find these species living together in one place. As my guidebook put it, the Pacific Crest Trail “enters a stand of white fir, red fir, mountain hemlock, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and knobcone pine.”

After 37 miles of hiking, the trail enters Oregon. I stopped at the border and signed the hiking register—a place where hikers can post that they were there—writing of my support for creating more monuments. Shortly after entering Oregon, the trail winds along old logging roads and other gravel roads that provide access into the proposed monument. Indeed, the hiking becomes less interesting. Much of the area is logged. I walked through a recent clear cut where, for some reason, loggers left all the incense cedar trees. Everything else was cut.

I traveled some more along the trail and was unnerved a bit as I passed through a herd of cattle, bells tied to their necks. They left me alone. The Oregon side certainly has more human impacts.

After 45 trail miles since leaving Seiad Valley, I found a note along the trail at the intersection of one of the many gravel roads. It was from my wife, telling me she was camped nearby and that one of our beloved labs back home had been bitten by a rattlesnake. I decided to leave the trail early and travel home to tend to our dog. (The dog lived.)

But before I left the proposed monument, I placed one last call to Joseph Vaile at KS Wild. Vaile and I had spent much time on the phone. He is an especially articulate young man. I gave him my report: The area has fantastic beauty in its diversity. The flowers. The elk. The trees. But it also has roads and lots of human use. It is haphazard. Lacking in a plan. Some of it is imperiled by overuse and general landscape destruction. A nickel mine has been proposed in the area and there is the ever-present danger of logging. (I see why some people call the BLM the Bureau of Logging and Mining.)

This unique and sensitive landscape definitely is at risk.

Vaile agreed: “When the idea was first presented, we thought it’d be a good idea to put the Siskiyous under one agency. Have one plan. Right now there are two states and two national forests, the Bureau of Land Management, two small existing monuments and some private land, all with competing interests and conflicting land-use plans.”

Putting the Siskiyou Crest under one federal agency seemed rational to KS Wild. The controversy took the organization by surprise. Rural residents of Siskiyou County demonized the organization. They still do, as evidenced by all the signs opposing the monument (and KS Wild), even though nobody is currently pushing the idea.

And yet, as Vaile said, nothing is more American than saving our wild heritage. We were the first country to create a national park. And with some forward-thinking environmental laws, species and land have been saved. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act—which has left millions of acres in their most natural state. Saving land is popular. It sometimes takes 30 years for a piece of land to be protected. But with time and education, good things do happen.

The State of Jefferson will never come into existence. And Bigfoot? Despite trail cameras and television shows that highlight looking for this possible human relative, most experts believe that he, also, will remain a mythological creature.

So what about the Siskiyou Crest National Monument? Will President Obama pick up his pen in the last remaining hours of his administration and atone for a lackluster environmental record by creating scads of new monuments? I hope so. But I am a lover of wild space. An idealist and a dreamer. A believer in the value of wilderness. It is my hope that others will voice their support for preserving wilderness—places like the Siskiyou Crest. Because, as my favorite writer, Edward Abbey, once wrote, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders.”