Wyden looks to expand protections for Owyhee River and Canyonlands

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced legislation to add nearly 15 miles of federal protections to the Owyhee River and protect 1.1 million acres of the surrounding canyonlands as wilderness. 

Moreover, the proposed legislation, the Malheur Community Empowerment Act, also known as the Malheur CEO Act, would safeguard the 15 miles of the Owyhee against new damming and diversion of the river to preserve water quality, according to Hank Stern, Wyden’s spokesman. 

The plan would also protect an undetermined amount of road around the 15-mile stretch of the river. 

Stern also said the legislation calls for improvements to a narrow, aging road to the Owyhee Dam. He said the road gets a lot of traffic, often with folks hauling trailers and boats, and there are no pull-outs. 

Stern said that the runoff from the road and potential car accidents would have a detrimental effect on the river. Improving the road would help protect the river. 

Stern said Wyden’s office is developing maps with the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition, a local rangeland advocacy group and Friends of Owyhee River, a local conservation group. 

Additionally, Stern said the legislation would provide for range improvements and better monitoring that could give ranchers more flexibility in grazing and the ability to treat invasive species. In addition, he said there are provisions to remove juniper and update water structures to keep livestock and wild horses out of delicate riparian areas.

Tim Davis, executive director of the conservation group, said the bill is bipartisan. 

“We’re not playing politics in this,” Davis said. “It’s a bipartisan (approach), which, I think, will go a long way in Washington D.C.”

Elias Eiguren, coalition treasurer and a Jordan Valley rancher, said the coalition was formed to fight a federal monument designation of the Owyhee Canyonlands in the waning days of the Obama Administration.

After that, he said, the group began working on federal legislation to establish broader and more flexible public land management for Malheur County. That process brought together the Friends of the Owyhee River and the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition. 

“Our concern in this process was how do we come up with (a plan) that makes sense and is manageable,”  Eiguren said. “(The plan) should be something that anybody in the environmental community wants to be involved in and anybody living locally on the land has to continue to sustain this ground for our families and communities for generations to come.” 

Although Eiguren supports the bill’s provisions, he said he is cautious about how the grazing management would play out. 

He said Wyden’s office is working hard to address the ranchers’ concerns. However, Eiguren noted it is difficult to make headway when dealing with a federal agency and a diverse landscape.  

Eiguren said ranchers need to open up the grazing calendar, and they need to be able to put their cows in various locations on federal lands. Currently, he said, that is not the case. With regulatory paperwork from federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, past litigation from environmental groups and other competing interests on the range, the grazing process is difficult for ranchers. 

It is hard to know if the legislation would improve the situation, Eiguren said. 

“From my standpoint,” he said, “I would just like a better idea of what would actually happen on implementation of the legislation.” 

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