Conservationists have talked about creating a federally protected wilderness in the area for decades. The remote sagebrush steppe country includes scenic canyon lands and geologic features, and is celebrated for its rugged character.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said Tuesday that she is not aware of any coordination between her office and the White House about a conservation proposal for the Owyhee. 

Last year, Portland-based Keen Footwear launched a campaign to convince President Obama to designate 2.5 million acres in southeast Oregon as an Owyhee Canyonlands national monument.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association has been talking about a wilderness designation for years, but that can only happen through Congress. Obama has already created or expanded 19 national monuments. The prospect of a Democratic president designating a monument in the Owyhee has galvanized some local residents in opposition, and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, opposes the idea.

Walden asked Jewell directly if the Interior Department is involved in such an effort.

Jewell said, at the moment, she’s not coordinating with the White House for an Owyhee monument.

“It’s one of those things people have recommended to us,” Jewell said. “But we have not held any community meetings, and we haven’t had any discussions in those communities. People haven’t been actively in my office asking about it.”

Walden told Jewell that he was worried about an unexpected “dark of night” designation from Obama.

There’s nothing in the Antiquities Act that requires a president to work with the Interior Department on new national monuments. But Obama has involved Jewell in past designations.

Walden also asked Jewell to let him know if her office does become involved in a monument process, and she agreed to do so.