S.1890 proposes flexible grazing, wilderness, hostels and other ideas

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

By:  Leslie Thompson

Argus Observer

MALHEUR COUNTY – A bill dubbed Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act – or Malheur CEO Act — has been reintroduced in Congress by U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Democratic lawmakers from Oregon. A public meeting in Ontario this Friday will be the first chance for the general public to weigh in on the proposal. There are various aspects still being ironed out, as the reintroduction of S. 1890 “is a step in a process that includes many more steps ahead, according to an email on June 10 from Hank Stern, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

The bill includes a host of proposals. Among these are establishment of a new grazing management program; designation of 1.09 million acres of wilderness; creation of a CEO group to suggest, review and fund projects; a federal land transfer of a grazing allotment into Trust for the Burns Paiute Tribe and a larger co-stewardship area for the Tribe and the Bureau of Land Management; and economic development. The latter of these is proposed to be in the form of loop roads, state park improvements, private camp improvements and a network of rural hostels. Hostels could be built by using “former hotels and “other ideas folks come up with,” according to an update on the proposal from Friends of the Owyhee. The nonprofit is one of many special interest groups that have been working with Wyden and Merkley on the bill.

Of the myriad proposals tucked in the bill, there are still some unknowns, including who would manage the $6 million the bill allocates for feasibility studies and economic development, and who would stand to gain from managing a proposed “network of rural hostels.”

“There will be multiple opportunities for anybody in Malheur County to weigh in” on these and other issues, according to Stern’s email.

Stern said that according to the stakeholder section of the bill, recommendations will be made by appointees of a CEO group, while meetings will be open to the public. According to the proposal, the CEO group would review and fund projects and would have 10 voting members, as well as ex-officio members for technical assistance. According to information from Friends of the Owyhee, the group will comprise “local ranchers, environmental organizations and Tribal representation to advise on flexible grazing program and projects.”

S. 1890 was spearheaded in 2019 through a series of stakeholder meetings, with momentum recently picking back up now that delays from the pandemic have passed. Over the past several months, there have been people from many entities, fleshing out details of the bill.

Ideas for economic development were generated at those meetings, according to Stern.

Among groups working on the proposal is the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition. The latter of these formed in 2016 due to a grassroots movement to oppose the creation of a 2.5-million acre national monument in the Owyhee Canyonlands of eastern Oregon.

When Malheur County Court put the matter to the people in a referendum vote that year, 90% of the voters shot that down. However, since then, the coalition has stayed active and has spent years working on an alternative plan that would allow for local input when it comes to managing BLM land.

Head of the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Steve Russell said in a recent interview that while he can’t speak for all ranchers, he could speak for himself he felt they were listened to during meetings, having a seat at the table. He said he believes grazing rights will remain protected for now and for future generations. Should that not remain the case, Russell said he would not personally support it.

On June 15, the coalition along with multiple conservation, hunting, fishing and outdoor industry organizations wrote Wyden and Merkley in support of moving forward with the act.

Owyhee Sportsmen also recently voiced support for the S. 1890, saying it will promote “the long-term ecological health of the region while providing support for economic development and continued traditional and recreational uses of public lands.” The bill would permanently protect fish and wildlife habitat on over a million acres in southeast Oregon, including the Owyhee River, Trout Creek Mountains and key winter range and habitat for big game and other species, according to a letter on June 15.

Key points of the bill

An email from Friends of the Owyhee breaks down key points of S. 1890. Highlights follow.

When it comes to grazing, the major change is that a rancher would no longer have to ask permission from the BLM when needing to take flexible action. Instead, they would inform the agency within 48 hours of taking the action. It also establishes monitoring rules for flexibility “to allow responses to real-time threats to the environmental integrity of these lands.”

The bill proposes creating wilderness out about one-fourth or 1.09 million acres of the federal land in the county, which has 4.5 million acres overall of federal land. Additionally, it proposes that 1.07 million acres of areas designated as either Wilderness Study Areas or Lands with Wilderness Characteristics will become managed for multiple uses.

The bill proposes the Burns-Paiute Tribe and BLM will have a larger footprint for their co-stewardship area, and also transfers lands into trust for the Tribe. This includes about 27,000 acres of the Jonesboro Grazing Allotment and 2,500 acres of Castle Rock Wilderness Study Area. According to the information, this would not impact existing rights, rights-of-way or water rights.

Encouraging tourism and local development of tourist-related amenities is also part of the bill. Among proposals: creating four loop roads, including one each for the Owyhee Dam, Succor Creek, Birch Creek and Three Forks; up to two marinas on the Owyhee Reservoir; improvements to state parks bordering that body of water; improvements to private camps on the shore; and establishing “a network of rural hostelries consisting of former hotels’ and other ideas folks come up with.”

It also includes improvements to the Jordan Valley Airstrip in order to support firefighting efforts and allocates.