Harmony in the Canyonlands?

Plans call for a mix of uses to continue in the rugged Canyonlands. (The Enterprise/File)

VALE – Legislation sponsored by two Oregon senators will unite a group of unlikely partners to safeguard the Owyhee Canyonlands and help restore damaged federal rangeland in Malheur County. 

The legislation – by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley – is called the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act and is the result of months of private negotiations between local ranchers, conservation groups, state universities and federal agencies. 

The legislation, announced last week, breaks a years-long impasse between a union of environmental and conservation groups and local ranchers. 

Wyden stepped into the conflict in April when he announced at an Ontario town hall meeting that he would lead an effort to find a compromise between special interest groups on the Owyhee Canyonlands. 

An alliance of ranchers, environmentalists and conservationists began to meet in May in Ontario to find a compromise. Facilitated by Wyden and his staff, negotiating sessions were held every two weeks over four months. After each meeting ended there was no guarantee all the parties would convene again.

A key sticking point was how much land would be designated wilderness and, after it was, whether grazing would continue.

Corie Harlan, the Owyhee coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a Bend-based environmental coalition, said her group wanted more land classified as wilderness.

“We felt there are many more deserving acres of wilderness. That was a big compromise for us,” said Harlan.

The Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition, a federation of local ranchers and residents, was opposed to classifying more land as wilderness, but was willing to agree to designate one million acres if certain traditional uses continued.

“If the tools are there to accomplish what needs to be accomplished, run your business, run your cattle, use the country as we were, then it makes it doable,” said Steve Russell, coalition chair.

Wyden said Friday in an exclusive interview with the Enterprise that the dedication of the different groups to find a solution kept the negotiations going, even after they strongly disagreed. 

 “I know some of the people who got together on this don’t always see eye-to-eye on every single issue. But at the same time, people came to the table so many times that, at one point, someone said they recognized the grain of the wood on the table,” said Wyden.


Harlan said perseverance during the negotiations by all parties paid off. 

“I think everyone was willing to show up and keep showing up and listening. We had some really rough patches and some really hard stuff to talk about and work through and everyone just had a collective willingness to keep trying,” said Harlan.

Wyden said he sensed that there was a “rare window” of opportunity.

“Every once in a while, the timing just gives you an opening. You start with the proposition that federal lands are a lifeblood of the rural economy. Then you just keep reaching out to those with recreation interests, environmental and ranching folks,” said Wyden.

Russell, a Malheur County rancher, said his group was satisfied with the proposed legislation and labeled it a “win-win.”

“OBSC spent many hours negotiating the details of the bill. The final result accomplishes what we set out to do and we sincerely appreciate the dedication of everyone involved,” said Russell.

Harlan said negotiating success came from a “lot of shared values.”

“Once we agreed on the key issues, then it became a question of what are the right tools to get us there. We realized you have to have a nimble and responsive approach. There are some things in the bill we are really excited about but in the same vein this is truly compromise legislation,” said Harlan.

Two groups – the Northwest Sportsfishing Industry Association and American Rivers – hailed the announcement last week.

“After decades of conflict, Sen. Wyden’s leadership has brought together ranchers, conservationists and the Burns Paiute Tribe to craft a conservation vision for the Owyhee River canyon county and millions of acres of public land in southeastern Oregon,” said David Moryc of American Rivers.

“We’ve got to get it over the finish line,” said Wyden.

Elias Eiguren, treasurer of the stewardship coalition and a Jordan Valley rancher, said a mutual understanding of the threat to large swaths of public land helped.

“Everyone agrees that there are some major issues with land health that are not being addressed and it goes beyond cows, no cows and people understand that,” said Eiguren.

Managing the land 

The legislation would designate about 14 miles of the Owyhee River as wild and scenic and add over a million acres of wilderness.

At the same time, another 1 million acres will remain or return to multiple use. All acres – including wilderness – will be managed for improvements to ecological health.

A key piece of the bill is a holistic approach to land management. For example, the plan creates a monitoring network designed to ensure management practices are a benefit. The network will use input from ranchers, businesses, environmentalists, federal and state agencies.

The bill provides money for managing range enhancement practices, tourism development and road improvements. 

The bill also would protect and “recognize the ancient important cultural base of the native peoples who have occupied this land for millennia by preventing harm to any sacred tribal location or resource.”

The bill does not create a national monument for the area or amend the Taylor Grazing Act. It also does not amend the Wilderness Act, impact water rights or area irrigation districts. Existing grazing practices in and outside wilderness areas would continue and existing mineral claims in the area are not affected.

The plan isn’t law yet. The next step for the legislation, Wyden said, will be a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Wyden is a member of that committee.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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