Sharp Divide in Oyahee Debate

By Hilary Corrigan The Bulletin May 24, 2016 at 05:52AM
A proposal to permanently protect the Owyhee Canyonlands in southeast Oregon prompted questions Monday about the adequacy of current rules and whether a new designation might eventually halt grazing in the area.
A state House committee discussed the proposed Owyhee Canyonlands National Conservation Area at a crowded informational hearing in Salem during legislative days. Panel members listened to about a dozen proponents and opponents who each used recent polls as evidence to support their positions and who each claimed to want to protect a unique region of the country.
The two sides differed sharply over how to do that.
“This area needs and deserves protection,” Friends of the Owyhee representative Tim Davis told lawmakers as he urged a long-term view. “We need to look beyond the moment.”
Davis recalled growing up in Adrian, viewing the Owyhee from his bedroom window, exploring the region and spreading family members’ ashes there. Davis also pointed to growing populations in the area around Owyhee and the proximity of Boise, Idaho — about an hour’s drive from it.
“I love this place; my family, friends and neighbors love this place,” he said.
A coalition has proposed protecting about 2.5 million acres, allowing different uses in the region — including outdoor recreation and grazing — but blocking mining, energy development and road construction, which the coalition has said could occur under current U.S. Bureau of Land Management practices.
State lawmakers zeroed in on the process that could lead to any new levels of protection, questioning whether such discussions would go through Congress or whether President Barack Obama might make the decision on his own by designating the site a monument before he leaves office. They also argued that existing protections already guard the land that is mostly under BLM control.
Brian Wolfe, Malheur County sheriff, noted “grave concerns” about efforts to get Obama to declare the area a national monument. Wolfe wondered whether such a designation could close roads or reduce grazing, which could in turn boost fuel for wildfires.
“Livestock is the driver of our local economy,” Wolfe said. “The very heart of our community is at stake.”
Wolfe also recalled the recent standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that divided families and close friends.
“We are still working through what happened,” he said, calling the situation real and painful for area residents. “I’ve never felt tension like this before.”
Calling for a monument would add “salt in the wounds of a region that is trying to heal,” Wolfe said.
Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association that represents thousands of ranchers in Oregon, warned that new protections could erode grazing abilities and risk the area’s economy — harming some of the poorest families in the state. Rosa called ranching “not just a business but a heritage and a culture.”
Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, told lawmakers that ranchers and others in the region — not the federal government — had made the area beautiful. Bushue objected to supporting the outdoor recreation industry over the local ranching economy.
John Sterling, executive director of The Conservation Alliance, which is a group of outdoor industry companies that works with environmental groups, responded that the current economy can continue on those lands while growing the outdoor recreation industry.
“We’re not talking about any change in the grazing,” Sterling said, noting the proposal seeks instead to block energy development and unregulated off-road vehicle use. He expects visitors to the canyonlands to generate business and boost the local economy.
“All we have to do is protect the goose that lays the golden egg,” Sterling said.
Brent Fenty, the executive director of the nonprofit Oregon Natural Desert Association who grew up outside of Tumalo, noted the area hosts rare plants and animals and unique geological features. Fenty warned of fragmentation that would degrade wildlife areas and reduce access for hunting and fishing and also that the possibility of oil, gas, mining, road and transmission development threatens the region.
“Leave the Owyhee Canyonlands whole” for future generations, Fenty said.
He also noted that discussions about conserving it date back decades. A current wilderness study area designation, in place for 30 years, is actually temporary and — like a 30-year engagement — prompts skepticism about the level of commitment, Fenty said.
“We have not made a commitment” to holding this landscape together, he said, pointing to oil and gas development on Wyoming public lands and the possibility of such activity taking place at Owyhee. And if road construction crisscrossed the area, hunters would not want to hunt there, he said.
Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, sided with opponents in addressing the House Interim Committee on Rural Communities, Land Use and Water, as she argued that the protection effort amounted to one of control and said that the land is already protected.
“What are we protecting that is not protected, and why do we want it protected, and protected from what?” Sprenger asked. “What is this effort about?”
— Reporter: 541-617-7812,
Back to Top