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.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley says he does not believe President Obama will designate the Owyhee Canyonlands as a national monument before leaving office on Friday.

Merkley said Interior Secretary Sally Jewel told him a monument designation for the eastern Oregon lands has been shelved. 

Obama has taken a series of monument actions in recent months, including expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southern Oregon.

The fate of the 2.5 million-acre region along the Idaho border has been the subject of heated controversy for more than a year. Several environmental groups and the Keen footwear company have campaigned for the monument designation, saying it’s needed to protect the rugged landscape.

That’s generated strong opposition from local ranchers and by Malheur County residents — where the canyonlands are located — in an advisory vote.

Merkley has said he didn’t necessarily oppose a national monument, but that it should only be undertaken after local concerns were addressed. In a telephone interview Friday, Merkley noted that never happened and that Jewell did not consider the Owyhee monument proposal “ripe for consideration.”

Merkley said Jewell made this clear in talks with both him and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

“The secretary was very clear in the conversations that both Senator Wyden and I had that they were not prepared to act,” Merkley said.

“So it was set aside,” he added, “and I have a feeling it will be set aside for quite a while.”