Think Out Loud

Protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
April 29, 2024 10:54 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, May 3

More than 200 species of wildlife call the Owyhee Canyonlands home. The dramatic landscape stretches across southeastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho, and is the ancestral homeland of several Indigenous tribes. While much of the region is currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management, advocates have championed for broader protections like a national monument or a wilderness designation. Kylie Mohr is a freelance journalist and correspondent for High Country News. She recently wrote about the proposals for the magazine and joins us with details.


Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to the Owyhee Canyonlands. The dramatic landscape is the ancestral homeland of several Indigenous tribes. It now stretches across Southeastern Oregon and Southwestern Idaho. While a lot of the region is currently overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, advocates have long pushed for broader protections like a national monument or a wilderness designation. Kylie Mohr is a freelance journalist and a correspondent for High Country News. She recently wrote about these proposals and she joins us with the latest. Good to have you on the show.

Kylie Mohr: Thanks for having me.

Miller: You’ve noted that supporters call this region the largest conservation opportunity in the West. Can you just give us a sense for the scale of the land that we’re talking about?

Mohr: Like you said, the Owyhee Canyonlands is this really vast area. There’s deep ravines, rolling sagebrush. And both proposals for permanent protection, the national monument or a wilderness area, they span a little over 1.1 million acres and that makes it the largest wilderness bill currently introduced in Congress that has passed out of a committee and the largest national monument currently proposed nationwide.

Miller: Tim Davis, a lifelong Malheur County resident, who you talked to who runs a conservation group said that for a long time, the remoteness of the Owyhee area has protected it but not really anymore. What did he mean?

Mohr: Yeah. So he grew up there and the area has been kind of off the radar, so to speak for a long time. It’s really rural, but increasingly there are solar and mining interests that are kind of popping up around the edges and growth in places like Boise, Idaho. And really, the whole Treasure Valley area has brought in a lot more recreationists and just kind of put the place a bit more on the map for people outside the region.

Miller: What did the folks you talk to see as the biggest threats to this land right now?

Mohr: So there are a lot. Like I just mentioned, recreation overuse is one of the bigger ones, not having the infrastructure to support that many people visiting and playing there. But there’s also the potential for energy development, resource extraction, as well as kind of overall landscape degradation by things like invasive weeds, which in turn helps spread wildfire. So it’s a lot of interconnected threats, I would say.

Miller: A few months ago, the Bureau of Land Management amended its management plan for almost half a million acres in this Owyhee region. There’ll now be protected lands with wilderness characteristics or LWCs. What does that mean?

Mohr: LWCs are basically like a wilderness light. They prohibit off-road vehicles, roads and energy facilities. And the cool thing about a lot of these lands is they share a border with or connect existing wilderness study areas which are managed with the same limitations. So, as you mentioned, that creates a lot of interconnected acreage of kind of almost wilderness.

Miller: You said you could think of it as wilderness light. So how is that different from a true wilderness designation?

Mohr: So a true wilderness designation for starters, it’s permanent. It’s not part of a 20 or 30 year planning process like these LWCs. And true wilderness also includes some prohibitions, not in the LWCs, namely prohibiting mining.

Miller: But that is something that an agency and administration can do on its own without congressional approval, which takes us to some efforts from Oregon’s delegation. A few years ago. Now, Oregon’s Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced a bill called the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act. What would it do?

Mohr: The Owyhee Act would permanently designate 1.1 million acres of wilderness, much of which is already a wilderness study area like we just talked about. And it would also transfer 27,000 acres of land into a trust for the Burns Paiute Tribe and establish a co-management agreement with the tribe on an additional 10,000 acres.


Miller: How much local buy in or push back have the senators gotten?

Mohr: So there’s always going to be push back on a wilderness proposal. And there are definitely some locals and local groups that see it as federal overreach. But in general, people I talked to described kind of a slow consensus building process between different groups, from ranchers to hunters, that’s been successful in building consensus. And locals like Tim Davis, who I spoke with for this story, said that people have really kind of come to see their backyard as a special place that’s worth protecting and gotten on board with the proposal.

Miller: Is this completely separate from the push to have the land be designated as a national monument?

Mohr: I wouldn’t say it’s completely separate. They’re parallel and kind of intertwined. A lot of the same groups are involved in and leading the national monument push which covers similar acreage. And really the difference is the national monument is kind of seen as an opportunity to protect the landscape in case this legislation flounders. So a lot of supporters support both. And in fact, it was really hard to get people to say if they even preferred one over the other for the story.

Miller: That reminds me you did have a quote from somebody saying it’s a trick question because either one would be better than neither, than the status quo. I want to turn to a little bit of the history here because you also note that there have been efforts to permanently protect this land, the Owyhee Canyonlands, for a long time. How long are we talking about?

Mohr: Almost 100 years, if not more. I learned through the reporting that at this outdoor recreation conference in 1928 there were federal employees talking about protecting the region because of its outstanding recreational importance. And Bob Marshall’s famous inventory of potential roadless areas in 1936 also included the Owyhee. So it’s definitely been on the map as a place where people are going to visit and a place that probably needs some sort of protection for quite some time.

Miller: In terms of more recent history, you mentioned the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. How did that affect this movement?

Mohr: Sources told me that that definitely stalled conversations about protecting Owyhee for a couple of years. Their hands were just full with other issues. There was a lot going on with that occupation, but legislation that we’re now looking at today reemerged in 2019. So it was really just a pause rather than a long time block.

Miller: And then after it was reintroduced in 2019, but it wasn’t until this past November, what, five months ago or so, that this Wyden-Merkley Bill got a committee hearing. How significant is that?

Mohr: So it passed out of a committee with bipartisan support in December. And that’s pretty significant. There’s a lot of packages that would create wilderness, sometimes much more acreage all across the west that never make it out of committee. So this is definitely an important step, but it now awaits action on the senate floor. So it’s just one of many steps in the process.

Miller: So that is the wilderness bill. But experts you talked to said that a monument designation actually has a better chance politically. Why is that?

Mohr: Simply put wilderness needs congressional approval. And supporters just aren’t optimistic that the legislation would pass the House of Representatives even if the Senate approves it; whereas, a national monument just requires the president who has designated other national monuments during his term. But Biden can only do so much and I believe he’s expected to act on expanding national monuments in California soon.

So regardless of how that plays out, supporters are really hoping to either pass wilderness legislation or get a national monument designation prior to the potential for a new administration and new political makeup next year.  So the clock is ticking

Miller: Finally, you note at the very beginning of your article that the areas we’ve been talking about are the ancestral homelands of the Northern Paiute Shoshone and Bannock Tribes. What would these various protection mechanisms mean in terms of Indigenous sovereignty?

Mohr: I think to an extent that remains to be seen because neither is a Land Back proposal in its entirety. But a Northern Paiute tribal member who I spoke to for the piece said he’d really like to see a monument designation with similar tribal code management agreements to what has been created for the Bears Ears National Monument. So there’s definitely potential for co-management, but that’s not always the end goal.

Miller: Kylie, thanks very much.

Mohr: Thanks so much for having me.

Miller: That was the freelance journalist Kylie Mohr who is a correspondent for High Country News. We spoke on Wednesday. Kylie mentioned that President Biden was expected to expand two national monuments in California. He did that yesterday. They are the San Gabriel Mountains and Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monuments.

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