WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley last week introduced legislation to block mining exploration on more than 2 million acres in Malheur County.
The senators say the bill would stop oil and gas drilling, but also help ranchers and farmers by enhancing and protecting their traditional economic activities.
The bill, dubbed the Southeastern Oregon Mineral Withdrawal and Economic Preservation and Development Act, recognizes that public lands in the region have hosted agriculture and cattle ranching for generations, the senators said in a release announcing the legislation.
However, they said those pursuits face threats including the possibility of foreign companies who want to parachute into the state to explore for minerals such as uranium.
“This is deeply troubling because these mining operations are dangerous – to the existing local economies as well as to the overall environment,” Wyden said. “Blocking mining in these areas protects the local potential for continued creation of jobs in agriculture and recreation, and the growth of small businesses.”
The bill comes amid intensifying debate over a proposal to create a 2.5 million-acre Owyhee Canyonlands national monument in the county.
The federal designation, which could be done by President Obama without Congressional action, has drawn strong support from national environmental groups but sharp local opposition. County residents rejected the idea by a 90 percent majority in an advisory vote earlier this year.
Ranchers are particularly concerned that a monument would end grazing and threaten the county’s most significant industry.
And they are not certain what the Wyden-Merkley bill really means to them.
Andy Bentz, part of the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition that opposes the monument, said the group meets this Thursday and will discuss the legislation to determine what stand they will take.
Speaking for himself, he noted there is a study underway by the U.S. Geological Survey to inventory the mineral resources of the region, an effort related to sage grouse habitat planning. He suggested it might be better to see what those experts find before taking legislative action.
The senators focused their comments on threats from foreign interests including companies that want to exploit uranium and other minerals found in the remote lands.
The authors of the bill also say it would create and expands programs to support Southeastern Oregon communities.
That would include grants for water storage systems to keep livestock out of rivers and streams, infrastructure grants to improve roads for farmers and agriculture-related businesses, and job training for veterans and young people who want to get started in agriculture.
The bill also would establish an Agriculture Center for Excellence to expand local agriculture research while funding other infrastructure needs like wastewater treatment, drinking water systems, and broadband and cell phone tower deployment.
“The equation is simple: Healthy public lands mean healthy economies in this part of Oregon, and outside threats to those lands place local economies in peril.” Wyden said. “With these investments in Southeastern Oregon, communities can create jobs, train a new generation of workers, and modernize their economies.”
A spokesman for Wyden told The Bulletin that the law would grandfather in some existing “low-level mining” in the area.