Oregon Sen. Merkley introduces bill for new wilderness at Painted Hills, Sutton Mountain

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley is taking another swing at adding wilderness protections to a large mountain above the Painted Hills near Mitchell in Eastern Oregon.

The bill, introduced Wednesday, would establish 58,000 acres of wilderness on Sutton Mountain while also transferring 2,000 acres of federal land to the city of Mitchell for economic development.

It’s the second time Merkley has introduced the legislation. The bill failed to get much traction the first time around in 2015, even though it generated a unique amount of approval in deep red Wheeler County, with both the county commissioners and city council endorsing the measure.

“With this legislation, we’ll make sure that future generations will be able to experience some of Oregon’s most incredible landmarks—while also creating jobs and economic opportunities in the county now,” Merkley said.

Sutton Mountain is a long fault block of canyons, grassland and juniper trees that rises like a battleship above the Painted Hills, the most popular unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

Sutton offers beautiful but little-known backcountry hiking — conservation groups call it a wilder alternative to the often crowded Painted Hills trails. It’s also popular with elk hunters and home to antelope and pygmy rabbits.

“I came up here for the first time in second grade, and it has always been this wild, special place,” Chris Perry, a former Wheeler County judge who grew up in nearby Mitchell, told the Statesman Journal in 2015. “It’s one of those places with a natural isolation and feeling of wilderness, even though it’s pretty accessible from the road.”

Part of the appeal in the legislation among locals is transferring the 2,000 acres of BLM land known as the “Golden Triangle” to the city for development of RV park, search and rescue training facilities or an air strip, a news release said.

“I applaud Senator Merkley’s leadership to create important opportunities for Mitchell by reintroducing legislation to protect Sutton Mountain and convey the Golden Triangle to the City,” said Mitchell City Councilor Patty Verbovanic in a news release.

The legislation has been championed for decades by the Oregon Natural Desert Association, who’ve pitched it as an expanded recreation experience combing the Painted Hills, Sutton Mountain and John Day river into a single destination that keeps people in the Mitchell area longer.

Visits to the national monument — and the Painted Hills in particular — has jumped sharply in the last decade, to a record 214,557 visits in 2017 from just 112,578 in 2008.

“The Painted Hills are a great introduction to this epic landscape — a small area where you can drive in, take a few short hikes, and be done in one afternoon,” said Ben Gordon, stewardship director for the Bend-based ODNA. “Sutton Mountain would provide that larger, wilder experience.”

The Sutton Mountain and Painted Hills Area Preservation and Economic Enhancement Act faces an uncertain future in Congress following the passage of a major public lands package earlier this year that cleared a backlog of conservation proposals.