The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association Public Lands Committee and the national Public Lands Council are deferring to local ranchers and will not oppose federal legislation that places a more flexible type of wilderness designation on several parts of Malheur County.

The designation allows cattle grazing to continue.

“We support what our local members feel is best for their local areas, so we did not oppose that,” OCA Executive Director Jerome Rosa said. “That is what our local cattlemen wanted. So even though we follow national PLC policy, we are not going to oppose it. National PLC is the same way.”

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both D-Ore., on Nov. 7 introduced the Malheur County Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act, which would designate more than 1.1 million acres of the Owyhee River Canyonlands in Malheur County as wilderness.

The senators said collaboration among ranchers, conservation groups, researchers, business people and others was instrumental in the proposal. The bill supports efficient ranching as a conservation tool, and an adaptive-management approach that allows for adjustments based on results.

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. The coalition includes Oregon Cattlemen’s Association members who presented the plan to state and national policy representatives during OCA’s annual convention Nov. 21-23 in Bend.

Rosa said the national PLC, by not opposing the legislation and remaining neutral, left the matter to the state association. OCA’s Public Lands Committee “took the same neutral position on the bill.”

OCA typically follows PLC policy, which opposes wilderness designations “because generally that designation removes cattle from being able to graze in these areas,” he said.

The difference in the current legislation is it calls for adaptive management, meaning grazing, roads and vehicles will be allowed in wilderness-designated areas, Rosa said.

“A prime example of what it means in this wilderness-designated land is that grazing as a practice will be allowed to continue because it is working as an additional tool in the toolbox,” he said.

PLC is a member-affiliate organization led by four delegates from each Western state.

“If it is a single-state issue — in this case it’s Oregon — we defer to the member state,” PLC President Bob Skinner of Jordan Valley, Ore., said. For example, the organization acted similarly when an Owyhee wilderness bill for Idaho was finalized a decade ago.

Rosa said OCA “will continue to follow the legislation and see how the process evolves. Our biggest concern, and we will be following this closely, is to make sure this new definition of wilderness area is upheld.”

Local residents “know what’s best in their local areas,” he said. “We want to make sure we respect the wishes of what local folks feel has to be done in their local area. They are the experts.”

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