Merkley introduces Sutton Mountain wilderness bill

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced a bill into Congress on Thursday to designate four wilderness areas covering a combined 58,000 acres near Mitchell in Central Oregon. The wilderness proposal is centered around Sutton Mountain and Painted Hills.

“There is just no doubt in my mind that a lot of tourists and recreationists will want to see this gem, and that will be helpful to the local economy,” Merkley said Thursday in a conference call.

As part of the Sutton Complex Wilderness Proposal, another 2,000 acres of land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management would be transferred to Wheeler County.

New wilderness designations by Congress have been rare in recent years. The past two Congresses designated one wilderness between them, the 32,500-acre Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan.

Merkley said he would look at how that wilderness earned approval in trying to make his a reality. More likely than being approved on its own, he said the proposal may be combined with other proposals from around the country. Such a package might take a year or two to pull together.

If it makes it way through Congress, Merkley’s proposal would result in the Dead Dog, Painted Hills, Pat’s Cabin and Sutton Mountain wilderness areas — all between U.S. Highway 26 and the John Day River close to Mitchell.

The Wheeler County town has about 126 residents, according to the 2013 U.S. Census. The Painted Hills Wilderness Area would extend into the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

“This proposal has been the result of study and pondering by local stakeholders,” Merkley said. Much of the land in the proposal is already designated Wilderness Study Area, or land potentially suited to be wilderness, by the BLM.

Merkley said he recently visited Wheeler County and saw some of the land in the proposal with Chris Perry, Wheeler County judge. While visitors are already drawn to the Mitchell area by the John Day Fossil Beds, Perry said the wildernesses and potential development on the land the county would take over could entice travelers to stay longer. Possible development on the land near Mitchell includes a revived airstrip and an RV park.

“There is just lots of potential here for a community that has been on the decline for a long time with the timber industry going away,” Perry said.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association, based in Bend, has been among the advocates for designating wilderness near Mitchell and earned support for the proposal last fall from Wheeler County and the city of Mitchell.

“We’re grateful for the efforts of Senator Jeff Merkley to protect a truly spectacular part of the state’s high desert,” Brent Fenty, the group’s executive director, said in a news release.