Malheur stewardship coalition takes new Owyhee plan to Congress

The Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition presented a draft plan to manage public lands in Malheur County to a group of lawmakers and officials in Washington, D.C. last month. (The Enterprise/File).

VALE – A local conservation group was in the nation’s capital last month to share a draft plan for federal rangeland in the county but they went without representatives from one of the state’s leading environmental associations.

The Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition visited lawmakers and officials in Washington and revealed proposed legislation that would allow more local control of range restoration efforts on federal land.

The stewardship coalition campaigned against a federal monument designation of the Owyhee Canyonlands, pushed by an alliance of environmental groups, citizens and business.

The December trip was a shock to the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a Bend-based conservation group and a key member of the Owyhee Coalition, one of the organizations that sought to establish a federal monument of the Canyonlands.

The two sides have been divided for several years over how best to preserve the Canyonlands.

Last fall, the Owyhee Coalition signaled it was ready to sit down with members of the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition and talk about the Canyonlands and local federal land policies.

The Malheur County-based group indicated it was willing to listen to opposing views regarding the Canyonlands and federal land policies.

The coalition trip was especially jolting because some preliminary work on a meeting between the two organizations was in the works, said Corey Harlan, the Owyhee coordinator for Oregon Natural Desert Association.

“We were talking about a possible facilitator for a meeting. The next thing we knew they were in D.C., with this plan. It is disappointing and concerning that OBCS has decided to kind of go it alone,” said Harlan.

The linchpin of the proposed legislation is a plan to temporarily lift some regulations on public lands in Malheur County to accelerate soil and grass restoration efforts.

 “We took our proposal back there and discussed our basic concept of moving forward,” said Elias Eiguren, a Jordan Valley rancher and treasurer for the stewardship group.

The legislation would make money available to build an educational institution in Malheur County managed by an Oregon university to offer degrees connected to livestock, range and wildlife management. The group proposes funding to complete an inventory of flora and soils on public lands in the county, create a commission to work with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to produce a common standard to assess range health and determine where restoration efforts are necessary, and create a management plan that does not impact current permitted uses such as grazing.

Restoration would involve controlling invasive weeds and replacing them with native grasses.

The commission – the Malheur Accountability Commission – would be composed of eight members that must be Malheur County residents.

According to a white paper produced by the stewardship coalition, the legislation would stall legal action until those intending to sue “first bring their complaints before the MAC to work on binding, non-judicial resolutions before proceeding to court.”

The Malheur County Court, the secretary of the Interior Department and Oregon’s Congressional delegation would share in appointing the commission members.

Eiguren, along with Steve Russell, chairman of the stewardship coalition and coalition vice chairman Mark MacKenzie led the delegation to the nation’s capital.Eiguren said the group visited officials at the Department of the Interior and met with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon and staff members from Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon. Eiguren said the group met with the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“We asked for their feedback in terms of what rang through for them or what parts were non-starters, what basics we needed to cover and what other folks we needed to visit with,” said Eiguren.

Eiguren said officials and lawmakers were optimistic about the coalition’s proposals.

“Now we are waiting on those folks to take some time and discuss things among themselves and get back to us,” said Eiguren.

Once the coalition receives feedback, said Eiguren, the group will refine the legislation.

Harlan said the desert association feels it should be included in discussions about restoring and safeguarding public lands in Malheur County.

“Local voices absolutely matter but when we are talking about public lands, they are the natural heritage shared by all Americans. That is the nature of public lands. All voices matter,” said Harlan. Harlan said the trip to the nation’s capital “wasn’t what we were hoping to see.”

“We felt we were moving in a positive direction. It is concerning. We are not clear on how OSBC plans to push this forward. We do know we haven’t been able to offer input,” said Harlan.

“I believe there is value in us getting together and having a conversation,” said Eiguren.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: 541-473-3377 or [email protected].