Wyden, Merkley introduce Owyhee wilderness bill

Grazing and road usage would continue under proposed legislation that calls for designating more than 1.1 million acres of the Owyhee River Canyonlands in Malheur County as wilderness.

The bill, introduced Nov. 7 by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both D-Oregon, reflects stakeholder collaboration.

The area is important to the local economy because it includes significant grazing land, recreation destinations and other assets. Recent research there has focused on preserving sage grouse and other wildlife habitat, and native grasses.

The Malheur County Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act — largely a result of collaboration among ranchers, business people, conservation groups, university researchers and others — aims to maintain and improve rangeland, preserve grazing, and protect areas important to wildlife and recreation.

The legislation supports science-based, adaptive management of federal lands “to make efficient ranching a continued conservation tool and ensure real-time management responses to threats on the ecological integrity of the lands,” the senators said in a joint statement.

Adaptive management aims to encourage flexibility by allowing for adjustments based on current or recent results. To help ensure management actions produce ecological improvements, the legislation calls for creating a monitoring network of ranchers, businesses, environmental groups and land managers.

Grazing would be allowed to continue, including in newly designated wilderness areas. The legislation would provide funding for research, active-management activities and monitoring as well as enforcement of anticipated uses. It would maintain existing roads, and establish “loop roads” to encourage tourism while improving access for firefighting.

The legislation would not create a national monument, amend the Taylor Grazing Act, impede current projects, impact water rights or irrigation districts, or affect management of Owyhee Reservoir.

It would give wilderness protection to parts of the Trout Creek Mountains, Castle Rock, Leslie Gulch, Honeycombs, Three Forks and Jordan Craters. Wild and Scenic River management would be used on 14.7 miles of the Owyhee River below Owyhee Reservoir.

The legislation “ensures the safeguarded protections of desert wildlife habitat, native and rare plants, and vast wild places for future generations to enjoy” while also making sure ecological health drives management, Friends of the Owyhee said in an online newsletter.

The Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition, which includes ranchers and business owners, for more than three years has played a key role in discussions that led to the legislation.

OBSC Chairman Steve Russell said in the senators’ joint statement that the coalition hoped for resolution of land designations and “a unique BLM (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) model that protects grazing and other traditional land uses while providing for local guidance. We also hoped to create economic opportunities for Malheur County. The final result accomplishes what we set out to do, and we sincerely appreciate the dedication of everyone involved.”

Coalition board members, ahead of testimony scheduled Nov. 13 before the Malheur County Court in Vale, said in a statement that the legislation ensures ecological health is the driving factor in land management decisions, provides management continuity regardless of land designation, secures a place for county citizens to direct land management priorities and strategy, and recognizes all valid existing rights.

“It’s important that everyone in the county understands the intent of this bill, and the positives it offers our county and communities,” OBSC vice chairman Mark MacKenzie said the the statement.

He and Russell belong to the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and “have been exceptionally good at keeping OCA abreast of their efforts,” association Executive Director Jerome Rosa said in an interview.

OCA hasn’t officially taken a position on the bill, but its Public Lands Committee likely will discuss it during the OCA annual convention slated in Bend Nov. 21-23, Rosa said.

Though the legislation calls for continuing grazing and road use in wilderness areas, “we definitely want to make sure that the terms of this new wilderness designation will hold up and will not be compromised by previous wilderness-designation definitions,” he said. OCA wants to make sure the bill’s new definitions “will hold up when and if they are challenged by conservation groups.”

“We are learning more about the bill,” Oregon Farm Bureau National Affairs Director Gail Greenman said. The bureau’s board of directors has not yet taken a position.

BLM Vale District Manager Don Gonzalez said the agency does not comment on pending legislation. BLM has been working on amending a plan for managing about 4.6 million acres in southeastern Oregon; a final environmental impact statement is expected early next year.

“Conservation is good for everyone, and protecting the Owyhee will only strengthen this important and resilient rural economy,” Wyden said in the statement.

Merkley said the legislation “is the result of ranchers, conservationists and leaders coming together with a shared mission to protect this incredible land, and working to preserve the beauty and vitality of Malheur County for generations to come.”