The Owyhee Canyonlands Debate

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On Monday, May 23rd, I spent a good part of the day at the Oregon state capitol in Salem attending the House Interim Committee on Rural Communities, Land Use, and Water informational hearing regarding the Owyhee Canyonlands Monument proposal.  It was a very well attended meeting, with  the main hearing room and an overflow room filled to capacity.  This is a pretty important topic here in Oregon right now, in the aftermath of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year which brought national attention to a number of issues.  Not the least of which is the debate over who should control public lands, the states those lands are contained within, or the federal government.

The Owyhee Canyonlands Monument proposal seeks to add an additional layer of permanent protection to 2.5 million acres in southeast Oregon by having the area declared a national monument by the President through the use of the Antiquities Act of 1906. According to this report written for Congress by the Congressional Research Service, the Antiquities Act “authorizes the President to create national monuments on federal lands that contain historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historic or scientific interest.”

The canyonlands are located in Malheur County, Oregon’s second largest county. This area is incredible, and certainly unique as one of the largest roadless areas in the lower 48 states.  It is very remote, rugged and beautiful, home to petroglyphs, plant species found nowhere else, and vast habitat for a wealth of wildlife.  It is also home to one of my favorite rivers to float, the Owyhee.

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There is no doubt the Owyhee Canyonlands are a special place cherished by anyone who has explored them, and especially by those who live in the area.  That fact was made very clear by all who spoke before the House Committee during the meeting.  It seems that everyone agrees there needs to be some level of protection for these lands, and there have been numerous plans and discussions over the years about implementing various forms of protection.  Also, as was pointed out at the meeting, as well as here on a website formed by some of the opponents to the monument, 100% of the 2.5 million acres are already public and protected.

Richard C. Niederhof, professor emeritus of Central Oregon Community College, in a letter to the Bend Bulletin, puts it this way:

The Owyhee River canyon is already protected from rim to rim. Congress has already designated 120 miles of the Owyhee River in Oregon as a wild river component of the National Wild and Scenic River System, extending from the Oregon-Idaho border to the Owyhee Reservoir, excluding only 14 miles of non-canyon river near Rome.

Furthermore, the actual canyon lands, river and all significant canyon tributaries make up only 9 percent of the 2.5 million acres in the proposal. Therefore, the primary “selling point” of “saving of the canyon lands” is unjustified and deceptive.

So why, if this land is already protected, is this now an issue so hotly contested and up for discussion in a House Committee meeting?

The real debate, as Rep. Sherrie Sprenger stated very clearly during the meeting, seems to be about control.  This is the very debate that is sparking growing frustration, anger, and even violence throughout the western states.  Who should control and manage these lands, the federal government, or the states?  And the push for monument status for the Owyhee Canyonlands demonstrates exactly why this has become such a hot debate.

Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a Bend based organization that works to “protect, defend, and restore Oregon’s high desert” and Keen Footwear company have proposed the establishment of the monument.  They cite a poll that suggests as much as 70% of Oregonians support the proposal, 66% in the district where the canyonlands are located.

However, Malheur County residents voted no in an advisory vote on the monument proposal in March of this year.  This was a single-action ballot, the monument proposal the only issue on it, and according to Elias Eiguren, a Malheur county rancher who spoke at the meeting, 54% of Malheur county voters participated in the vote.  90% of those participants voted no on the monument proposal.

According to this Oregon Business article, a poll they conducted showed that 54% of Oregonians supported the monument (vs. the 70% in the poll ONDA promotes), and the article makes the point that this is largely a divide between urban and rural residents.  The majority of the people who are most likely to be affected by the monument designation, and possible resulting legislation over use of the area, do not support the proposal.  So why the push now, as President Obama nears the end of his term, and the local areas are still reeling from the divisive effects of the Malheur Refuge take-over?

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe spoke of the very real sensitivity in the area after the refuge occupation.  He clearly stated his concern that outsiders would come in with their own agenda if the area is declared a monument, and stated his belief that public safety will be at risk.  More than one member of the committee also questioned the timing of this proposal.

When asked about this, Brent Fenty, Executive Director of  ONDA, reminded the committee that permanent protections for lands such as the Steens Mountain area were not agreed upon until the possibility of monument designation was discussed for them.  As if to suggest that the monument proposal is a way to force the establishment of permanent protection.  It is a tactic reminiscent to the use of litigation to force legislation by groups like ONDA, often referred to as sue and settle.  Exactly the sort of tactics that increasingly lead to management policies that hurt local residents and economies.  This leaves local people feeling unheard and irrelevant in the process, resulting in mistrust, frustration, and anger.

The reality is, the Owyhee Canyonlands are worth protecting, and the local people living and working in the area have done a good job for over 100 years of doing just that.  They deserve to have a say in how the lands are protected and managed, and asking for a monument designation completely disregards that.  It is time that people on both sides of debates such as this one stop allowing special interest groups to drive the decision-making that effects us all and instead return the decision making to the local level.

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