U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have expanded the Malheur Community for the Empowerment of the Owyhee Act, also known as the Malheur CEO Act, to protect ranching interests in the latest iteration of the bill.
The proposed legislation protects over a million acres of public lands in Malheur County under the designation of “wilderness area” but also allows ranchers to operate in these protected zones.
The bill also establishes the Malheur CEO Group, a committee of ranchers, conservationists, tribes, and others with public interests who will oversee conservation projects in the wilderness areas.
“The changes made since the last iteration of this bill have been very positive changes,” said Tim Davis, executive director of Friends of the Owyhee.
He said this bill not only ensures the preservation of the landscape through the wilderness designation but also protects the watershed for agricultural communities.
Mark Dunn, who represents the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition, said that ranchers in Malheur County have been responsible stewards of the land for years and have voluntarily reduced grazing during drought years.
“It’s their livelihood too. It’s in their interests to improve sustainability of public lands,” he said.
For years, conservation groups have pushed for a national monument designation for the Owyhee Basin lands. However, ranchers have opposed the creation of a national monument, fearing loss of public lands available for grazing.
“We don’t know what will happen with a national monument. It may not serve the best interests of the community,” said Elias Eiguren, stewardship coalition treasurer.
Lindsay Slater, executive vice president of governmental affairs at Trout Unlimited, said that the threat of a monument designation has caused a lot of tension and litigation threats between the different communities in Malheur County.
“It has not been good for Malheur County or the Owyhee Basin,” he said. “Senator Wyden saw that and he said, let’s find a way through this that works for everybody.”
The legislation “preserves the business communities that rely on tourism and ranching and improves the health of the land,” Dunn said. “It’s been a lengthy process to negotiate where we are today and we are certainly supportive of this bill because the alternative is, well, a monument.”
Davis said the economic development section of the bill is one of the most important because it has “significant language to pump money into the community.”
According to U.S. Census data, Malheur County is the poorest county in Oregon. This bill, Davis said, strengthens the farming and ranching communities of Malheur County as well as preserves lands for outdoor recreation.
“If you look through the provisions, the ranching provisions, the conservation provisions, the allotment for the tribes, you say, this is not about Democrats or Republicans. This is about Malheur County,” Wyden said in an interview with The Enterprise.
Wyden said that he hopes to have a hearing for the bill in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the next few months.
“It’s a nice, well-balanced proposal that ultimately reflects the values and good work of the many different stakeholders that have been working on this for the last four or five years,” said Ryan Houston, executive director of Oregon Natural Desert Association.
Davis said the revised proposal “gives more certainty for the future of the land. Protecting the Owyhee and giving it wilderness status will ensure that the ag community continues to flourish, including the crops like onions that Malheur County is known for.”
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