By Pat Caldwell
For opponents of a plan to preserve more than 2 million acres of land in Malheur County, a conversation last autumn between two lawmakers may meaning everything.
Then it again, it may not.
The discussion occurred between state Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, who represents Malheur County in the Oregon House of Representatives, and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, in early November. The substance of the conversation, Bentz said, was fairly clear: President Barack Obama will probably designate the Owyhee Canyonlands as a federal monument by the end of his tenure in office.
“He was unequivocal – it was going to happen,” Bentz said last week.
Bentz said Merkely urged Bentz and other interested parties in the Canyonlands controversy to craft a list of uses that could remain under the Monument designation.
“What was left for us do was to identify those things we wanted to keep,” Bentz said.
A coalition of environmental groups, citizens and businesses support a blueprint to preserve 2.5 million acres of the Owyhee Canyon lands, either with legislative action through Congress or by securing a monument designation under the Antiquities Act.
The Antiquities Act, approved by Congress in 1906 and signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, is designed to allow the president to protect areas of historic and scientific interest by declaring monuments from existing public lands.
The Canyonlands proposal is opposed by several state lawmakers, including Bentz and state Sen. Ted Ferrioli, whose district also includes Malheur County.
Bentz sees a proposal spanning such a large area as “overreach.”
The concept is unpopular in Malheur County, where a non-binding referendum on the issue last month showed 90 percent of local voters opposed the move.
Bentz pointed out, though, that the conversation he had with Merkley occurred before a number of different events transpired, including an armed standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge fueled by public lands management issues.
“That was before the Bundy folk showed up and did their thing. It was before the community voted 90 percent no. It was before the organization of the group to stop the monument,” he said.
Those factors – especially the local grass-roots effort to oppose the conservation plan – give the Ontario lawmaker hope that a final decision is not set in stone.
“I don’t think there is any reason to believe that it (opposition to the Canyonlands plan) is hopeless. The proper thing to do is exactly what the community is doing, and that is getting organized and raising the funding to bring the rest of the state up to understanding how damaging the monument will be to the land,” he said.
President Obama has not addressed the Canyonlands proposal directly. Last month, Merkley told OPB Think Out Loud that while he isn’t necessarily against a designation, making such decisions without community involvement “creates so much dissension unnecessarily.”
Opponents of the monument plan say they’ve got the support of U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, but haven’t swayed Merkley or Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.
Bentz said educating the broader public regarding the proposal is critical.
“Most people have no idea that a monument can be imposed upon the size of four or five or six states. The key is to show the monument designation is not good for the land. There is plenty of time to make a difference,” he said.