ONTARIO, Ore. — An effort by conservation groups to have a large chunk of Malheur County set aside as a national monument or wilderness area has riled up ranchers and farmers in the area.
They have joined forces with a group of concerned citizens and elected officials who are fighting the Owyhee Canyonlands Conservation Proposal, which would encompass 2.5 million acres.
Malheur County Cattlemen’s Association President Chris Christensen said locking up that much area would eliminate a large amount of grazing land and devastate Oregon’s No. 1 cattle producing county.
“If this thing comes to pass, it would have a devastating effect on the ranching community and agriculture in Malheur County,” he said. “Anybody involved in agriculture in Malheur County isn’t going to be in favor of this thing.”
Christensen said a large chunk of that 2.5 million acres is grazed.
According to Sergio Arispe, a livestock and rangeland agent at Oregon State University’s Malheur County Extension office, locking up that much land would eliminate about 33 percent of the county’s total grazing land.
A monument designation “would destroy the community and the business of agriculture as it’s being done in this area right now,” Christensen said.
Oregon Natural Desert Association, which is leading the monument effort, says it would protect 2.5 million acres of wild lands and hundreds of miles of wild and scenic rivers. According to the group’s web site, the proposal would “allow working farms and ranches to continue to operate.”
But Jordan Valley rancher Bob Skinner, former president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said area residents believe the opposite would happen.
The majority of that 2.5 million acres is grazed, he said.
“There are cattle everywhere out there,” Skinner said. “If you take cattle out of (this) economy, you have decimated the economy. It would change our way of life. Not only farmers and ranchers, but everybody around here is up in arms about it.”
Malheur County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Linda Rowe, who opposes the monument proposal, said that 2.5 million acres would equal 43 percent of the county.
If the county’s economically vital cattle industry was devastated by it, a lot of hay, corn and other grains wouldn’t be grown here, she said.
“It would impact agriculture in Malheur County as a whole,” Rowe said.
Local elected officials and members of Oregon’s congressional delegation are holding a town hall meeting on the issue from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Oct. 29 in the Adrian High School gymnasium.
ONDA and other regional and national conservation groups and businesses are gathering signatures to back their effort. According to ONDA’s web site, “a variety of legislative and administrative options (are) being considered to permanently protect this place.”
According to a news release from Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, it is anticipated the groups are planning to ask President Barack Obama to use his power under the Antiquities Act to designate the land as a national monument, wilderness area or national conservation area.