Science & Environment

Federal powers seek compromise on protections for Oregon’s Owyhee

By Emily Cureton Cook (OPB)
June 20, 2023 1 p.m.

As land managers prioritize more acres for conservation efforts, lawmakers push for a permanent wilderness.

Federal plans unveiled this month sought common ground with conservation groups that want the government to protect a vast sweep of southeastern Oregon and those who fear such protections will erase their way of life.

The Owyhee River watershed includes millions of acres of federal land in Malheur County, where fights over resource management span decades.


Often called simply, the Owyhee, the watershed is known for its red rock canyons, expansive sagebrush and starry night skies. The Owyhee crosses multiple state lines and tribal ancestral lands, with an area equal to about 11% of Oregon’s total acreage.

On June 16, the Bureau of Land Management published draft changes to the agency’s rules and priorities for more than 4 million acres. This proposal drops as Democratic lawmakers are pressing for more permanent legislation focused on the region.

Leslie Gulch in Southeastern Oregon is within the area that conservationists hope to protect in the Owyhee.

Leslie Gulch in southeastern Oregon is within the area that conservationists hope to protect in the Owyhee.

Amanda Peacher / OPB

Once finalized, the BLM’s Southeastern Oregon Resource Management Plan will have influence for decades, and its draft is being cheered by a once-adversarial conservation group. That’s largely because the agency recommends protecting 417,000 acres as “lands with wilderness characteristics, including the restriction of off-highway vehicle travel to existing roads,” according to a June 15 BLM press release.

Such a protection would be a win for wild animals, plants and quiet recreationalists, said Oregon Natural Desert Association Executive Director Ryan Houston, adding that off-road vehicles are still allowed on more than 40,000 acres near Vale.

The nonprofit previously sued the BLM over its management of the Owyhee, and some of the proposed changes stem from a 2010 settlement agreement in that case.

“We see it as one of the most rugged, remote, wild corners of Oregon,” Houston said. “It’s one of the largest intact landscapes that’s currently unprotected in the Lower 48.”


This month, Oregon senators reintroduced legislation that would permanently protect roughly 1.1 million acres as wilderness. Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley originally sponsored the Malheur County Empowerment for the Owyhee Act in 2019, which triggered years of negotiations with regional interest groups. Now, the bill is returning with some key changes, according to an email from Wyden spokesperson Hank Stern.

The changes include funding a local Malheur group to do projects on both private and public lands, and more flexibility on grazing permits, Stern said.

The bill also seeks to put 30,000 acres in a federal trust for the Burns Paiute Tribe.

It would not revoke permits to graze cattle on public land, said Jordan Valley rancher Mark MacKenzie, a key supporter.

Oregon Natural Desert Association has proposed a 2.1 million acre wilderness area in the Owyhee Canyonlands, but it's a long way from congressional approval.

Oregon Natural Desert Association has long supported a wilderness area in the Owyhee Canyonlands.

Cassandra Profita

“[The bill] gives the people in the county a voice at the table in land management decisions,” MacKenzie said.

He serves as vice president of the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition, which formed to oppose the idea of a national monument in the Owyhee. That’s something locals have long feared might happen, suddenly and unilaterally, through a presidential declaration. MacKenzie said the bill is a way to avert that, and protect a rural way of life dependent on grazing cattle.

“Hell, I’m an old gray-haired bastard. It’s not for me,” he said. “I look at the grandkids coming up and I want them to have the opportunity to enjoy life like I have.”

MacKenzie hopes the federal bill will find support in the Senate, and in the House with his U.S. representative, Republican Cliff Bentz.

Bentz said in a phone call that he is still sizing up the details and wants to have more conversations in the district before he takes a position.

“This is a complex bill and deserves a study, and I’m going to give that study to it,” Bentz said.