Merkley Introduces New Wilderness and Economic Development Legislation

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Sutton Mountain and Painted Hills Area Preservation and Economic Enhancement Act, new legislation to create federal wilderness in the area of Sutton Mountain and the iconic Painted Hills and to promote economic development in the surrounding region.

The proposal, which was developed in close collaboration with the local community, would create new economic opportunities in Wheeler County and Central Oregon, and designate cherished public land in Oregon as wilderness and protect it for future generations.

“Working together to preserve Oregon’s unique places and grow jobs and our economy at the same time is a win-win,” said Merkley. “With this legislation, we have an opportunity to make sure that future generations will be able to experience these incredible Oregon landmarks unspoiled — and to create jobs and economic opportunity at the same time. I thank the Wheeler County community for their impressive work in developing this proposal.”  

“We’re pleased to see this moving forward, as we believe the bill will offer the area an economic boost,” Wheeler County Judge Chris Perry said. “As home to the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, we know that tourism and recreation can help support businesses. These businesses will also benefit from those who come to appreciate Sutton Mountain.”

By creating new wilderness areas around Sutton Mountain and the iconic Painted Hills, the legislation ensures their preservation for decades, and would put these incredible destinations more prominently “on the map” for outdoors lovers in Oregon and across America.

Additionally, the legislation will empower the surrounding region to create jobs and grow the local economy by providing 2,000 acres of land for Wheeler County to pursue economic development projects that will help attract and host more visitors. The types of projects the County is considering, such as an RV park, search and rescue training facilities, or an air strip, will help make the region a more attractive and accommodating destination for travelers, who in turn will spend money in the local communities and help boost local business.

The legislation would designate roughly 58,000 acres of wilderness on four new tracts in Wheeler County independently known as Sutton Mountain, Pat’s Cabin, Painted Hills, and Dead Dog.  These tracts of public land would provide recreational access and views to Sutton Mountain, the Painted Hills and John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and additionally connect to the Wild and Scenic John Day River.

These new wilderness areas will offer extensive recreation opportunities, such as day hikes, backpacking trips, river floats, horseback rides, fishing, and hunting, expanding the local recreation and tourism economy.

The proposed wilderness areas encompass a diversity of habitat types including grasslands, riparian areas, sagebrush shrub steppe, woodlands, and forests.  New wilderness in these areas would provide essential habitat for many native species.

The legislation is supported by local governments, communities, and stakeholders, including:

  • Wheeler County
  • The City of Mitchell
  • Redmond Chapter of Oregon Hunters Association
  • Oregon Natural Desert Association
  • Central Oregon Flyfishers
  • Lower Columbia Canoe Club
  • Audubon Society of Portland
  • Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club
  • Pew Charitable Trusts