It’s about access and economics

By Keith Baltzor
To the Enterprise

Oregon Natural Desert Association, Keen Footwear and other supporters are proposing a National Conservation Area (Monument) for 2,579,032 acres of land entirely within Malheur county. Within this area, 2,012,350 acres would be designated as Wilderness and 50 miles of Wild and Scenic River. It involves the majority of land from McDermitt, Nevada, nearly to Adrian, and from roughly the Malheur-Harney county line to the Oregon/Idaho state line.

It includes 47 percent of all federal land in Malheur County and is 1,279,032 acres larger than all privately owned land in the county. The area proposed is, in a word, massive!

ONDA plows forward its selfish agenda with no regard for the thousands of people, local economies, or ecosystems that will be adversely affected. ONDA has failed to acknowledge collaborative efforts between agencies and local stakeholders. BLM and ranchers have effectively managed this area for over 70 years.

ONDA has never hidden its agenda of wishing to see very large tracts of roadless, fenceless lands closed to motorized vehicles. I contacted Corie Harlan, ONDA’s Owyhee coordinator, seeking a road inventory of the project area to attain a better idea as to potential access. Ms. Harlan informed me that no such map exists. She stated one was being worked on, but did not know when it would be finished. She said she foresees roads that would be “closed to the public” but retain “administrative access.” Pressed further, she was unable or unwilling to name specific roads. I can only presume those decisions will be in the new Resource Management and Wilderness Management plans that BLM will be required to complete, if designated. By then, it will be too late to have much say on access.

By closing even a few roads, public access, other than by foot or possibly horseback, will be denied to hundreds of thousands of acres. These areas are used to graze cattle, hunt, fish, sightsee, camp, ATV, etc. Online at wildowyhee.org, ONDA states, “The proposal will ensure areas people care about such as Leslie Gulch, Birch Creek, Three Forks, Owyhee Overlook and Anderson Crossing- remain accessible to the public.”

Five destinations in an area of over 2.5 million acres, is not, in my opinion, even close to acceptable access. It is nothing more than a bone thrown to the public to secure designation. I am offended that ONDA presumes to know what areas people care about.

ONDA touts historical uses, such as grazing, will be protected. I think not. Road closures will greatly diminish ranchers’ access they need to tend cattle, monitor grazing, check water, etc. In tracts of land that involve dozens of ranches, economic viability will cease to exist. Ranchers will be forced to reduce herds or sell out altogether. People who are now able to make a living there will face financial ruin.

According to Oregon State University Economic Information Office, Malheur County ranks first in beef production value in the state. Negatively affecting that segment of the county’s economy will be disastrous to the county’s tax base, businesses, schools, and protective services. The communities, county, and state can ill afford the losses in revenue due to ONDA’s overreaching proposal.

Road closures also will harm non-agricultural activities and the businesses they patronize. Hunters and anglers will be denied access, leaving them in some instances 40 or 50 or more miles from the places they have visited for generations. Most will go elsewhere to hunt and fish.

Again, the consequence of access denied. Campers, denied. Sightseers denied. Very young, old and disabled individuals will be denied the opportunity to enjoy many special places.

ONDA’s claims of positive economic growth because of the designation are false. A comprehensive study designed to honestly analyze the economic impact of wilderness designations on local economies in nearly every case found that “wilderness designation is associated with lower per capita income, lower total payroll, and lower total tax receipts”. (Ryan M. Yonk, PhD, Brian C. Steed, PhD, and Randy T. Simmons, PhD, “Boom or Bust: Wilderness Designation and Local Economies”)

Any designation without collaboration of local stakeholders and BLM as to access, economic, ecological, and social ramifications is not only wrong, it borders on immoral. Using Corie Harlan’s own words, “All we want to do is keep the Owyhee as it is.” I agree the Owyhee, as currently managed, is a spectacular place. Let’s keep it that way by opposing ONDA’s proposal for designation.

Contact Sens. Wyden and Merkley, Reps. Walden, Bonamichi, Blumenauer, DeFazio, and Schrader, Gov. Kate Brown and President Obama to voice your opposition. Also please also sign the petition at “Oppose the Misguided Owyhee Canyonlands Proposal” online.

Keith Baltzor is a Harney County resident. This column has been abridged for space. The unabridged version can be found online at the Enterprise’s Facebook page.