Designating a new national monument in the Owyhee Canyonlands would “inflame and deepen divisions in our communities” in the wake of the surprise not-guilty verdicts in the Malheur occupiers trial, a Southeast Oregon group said.

In an open letter to President Obama, who has authority to declare a new monument and has done so several times in recent months, the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition said the verdict “does little to heal the wounds created in our state and nation by the unfortunate events of the past year.”

A U.S. District Court jury in Portland acquitted seven defendants Oct. 27 of conspiring to keep federal employees from doing their jobs during the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters outside of Burns, Ore.

The occupation touched off a heated debate about federal land management. The possibility that Obama would designate the Owyhee Canyonlands monument is seen as a continuation of that argument. Local residents have asked him not to do it in what has become a “troubling and volatile atmosphere.”

The stewardship coalition’s letter said the president’s authority to designate a monument without congressional approval “should be exercised with caution and careful consideration.” The group urged Obama to consult with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley, and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, who represents Eastern Oregon in Congress.

The Bend-based environmental group Oregon Natural Desert Association, backed by the Keen Footwear, has proposed a 2.5 million acre Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness and conservation area. Critics say the area is bigger than the Yellowstone, Yosemite or Grand Canyon national parks and would cover 40 percent of Oregon’s Malheur County.

Local opposition is strong. Opponents believe designation would prohibit or severely restrict grazing, mining, hunting and other recreation. Proponents have said traditional land uses will be allowed, but opposition leaders doubt it.

“In the case of a potential Owyhee Canyonlands monument, the issues go far deeper than merely a question of how to best protect and manage the public lands we all care about and love,” the stewardship coalition said in its letter to Obama. “We know you will do the right thing.”

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