Supporters of a proposed wilderness designation for a chunk of Malheur County, Ore., expect the bill to make progress in Congress as 2020 unfolds.
U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both D-Ore., on Nov. 7 introduced Senate Bill 2828, the Malheur County Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act. It would designate more than 1.1 million acres of the Owyhee River Canyonlands in Malheur County as wilderness.
Local ranchers, business people and community members collaborated with conservation groups, university researchers and others to craft the bill. It’s viewed as important in preserving the area’s historic and economically significant ranching industry, and protecting wildlife, scenic and other values as the area draws more visitors.
The bill was read twice in the Senate and referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Wyden serves on that committee.
“Sen. Wyden will hit the ground running in 2020 to get a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee as soon as possible for the legislation backed by the broad-based coalition he put together in Eastern Oregon,” said Hank Stern, Wyden’s Oregon press secretary based in Portland.
The broad group comprises environmental organizations and the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition. The coalition consists of local ranchers, business owners, outdoor enthusiasts, law enforcement officials and others.
In a nod to local leadership, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association Public Lands Committee and national Public Lands Council went against standing policy in deciding they would not oppose the wilderness legislation.
OBSC Treasurer Elias Eiguren, whose family runs a ranch in southern Malheur County, said that when a hearing on the bill is held in Washington, D.C., OBSC members likely will participate.
“We are waiting on the senator’s direction,” he said, referring to Wyden.
Locally, OBSC — which opposed an Obama-era proposal to designate a national monument — has been discussing details and on-the-ground impacts of the legislation as well as concerns.
Eiguren said some people have voiced questions or concerns about how the legislation would affect existing water rights, and how wilderness designation would impact access to federal land for hunting, fishing or ranching.
Input about concerns can help in “seeing if there is a possibility to address these concerns within this legislation as we go through the legislative process,” he said.
“Especially when you are dealing with this type of acreage and the uniqueness of the landscape, it is very important to get things right so you don’t shut out access for people who have traditionally used the land in ways that are low-impact or beneficial,” Eiguren said.
The legislation would allow grazing to continue, partly as a land-management tool used to minimize impacts of wildfire and other threats.
It would provide funding for research, active-management activities and monitoring, and enforcement of anticipated uses.
It would maintain existing roads, and establish “loop roads” to encourage tourism while improving access for firefighting.