Oregon’s House Interim Committee on Rural Communities, Land Use and Water held a hearing Monday on potential conservation measures for a remote high desert and canyon land area known as the Owyhee in Southeast Oregon.
Lawmakers heard from speakers who both support and oppose federal conservation designations of the 2.5 million acres of remote desert and canyons. The vast and rugged area is known for its stunning red rock geology and canyons, recreation opportunities and expansive wildlife habitat. It’s also an important area for cattle grazing. Some believe President Obama could establish an Owyhee National Monument before the end of his second term.
While conservationists have been talking about establishing a wilderness area in the Owyhee for decades, the prospect of Obama designating a national monument, which does not necessarily require local buy-in or support from Congress, has galvanized both opponents and supporters of new federal protections. And in some ways, the issue highlights the continuing urban/rural divide in Oregon.
Conservationists bused in supporters from Portland and Bend to attend Monday’s hearing, and held a rally on the statehouse steps. Ranchers and other monument opponents also drove hours from Oregon’s eastern border just to be in the room for the hearing.
A Federal Designation Could Attract More Visitors
Republican Rep. Cliff Bentz represents House District 60, which includes the Owyhee. He told lawmakers that the area is already protected through wilderness study area designations and sage grouse conservation plans in place for southeast Oregon. He said a new federal designation could draw crowds of new visitors.
“Why would we stamp the word monument all over this, so that we can suck a whole bunch more people into that?” said Bentz.
But Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association disputed that the Owyhee is protected through the measures that Bentz pointed to.
“There may be some interim protections there, but we have not made a commitment to holding this landscape together,” Fenty said.
Fenty said without permanent and comprehensive conservation measures, the Owyhee remains susceptible to mining, oil and gas development, and off-road vehicle abuse.
Obama can designate a monument without state lawmakers’ input and without Congress weighing in. Speakers on both sides at the hearing urged lawmakers to contact the president in support of their cause.
Obama has not given any indication that he plans to designate the Owyhee a national monument through the Antiquities Act. But, Obama has already created or expanded 19 national monuments. In a March advisory vote in Malheur County, an overwhelming majority of local voters rejected the idea of a national monument for the Owyhee.
In a speech last month, Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell said the Antiquities Act is one of the most important tools a president has. “It’s a tool that should not be used lightly or invoked without serious consideration of the impacts on current and future generations,” said Jewell. “I do not think the Act should only be used in places where there is complete agreement, as some are suggesting.”
Supporters of conservation measures pointed to a new poll released Monday, which shows a majority of Oregonians support protections for the Owyhee when the landscape, ecosystem and recreational assets were described by pollsters. The survey was conducted by Democratic polling firm Anzalone Liszt Grove Research and it was paid for by the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.
But opponents to new conservation measures pointed to a different, earlier poll where 61 percent of respondents said there’s enough federal protection of the Owyhee currently. That poll was commissioned by the public affairs group which represents a group opposing the monument, Our Land Our Voice.
The two polls, commissioned by groups on opposite sides of the issue, demonstrate the key question in the debate over the Owyhee: will the status quo keep the area as it is?
Steve Boren, a rafter from Idaho who testified before the committee Monday, believes that it will.
“The status quo gave us a beautiful, spectacular, iconic wonderful landscape. A wonderful, functioning ecosystem,” said Boren. “I suggest to you that this is not broken. So let’s encourage outside influence to not try to fix what’s not broken.”
But Tim Davis, a resident of Malheur County a leader of Friends of the Owyhee believes the status quo allows too many loopholes for future development. He’d like to see more willingness for opponents to collaborate on a plan. “Honestly I think both sides need to work together on this,” said Davis. “We know that there’s more pressure on this land regardless.”