Local government

BLM designates more wilderness areas in Malheur County

More federal land in the region would be protected from off-highway use while getting new reviews of grazing practices under an amendment to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s resource plan.

The Resource Management Plan, which governs uses on federal land in Malheur County, was last updated in 2002.

The amendment protects over 400,000 acres of lands designated by the BLM to have “wilderness characteristics” The new rules would limit off-highway vehicle use to only existing routes in BLM lands and review grazing practices on the lands where ranchers have agreed to give up their permits.

According to Jonah Blustain, manager of the BLM Malheur Field Office, the designation “lands with wilderness characteristics” indicates that among other characteristics, these lands “possess a certain size, have a degree of naturalness and have recreational use.”

He emphasized that this designation will not affect grazing permits within those lands. According to the document, the purpose of the designation is to “emphasize maintenance and/or enhancement of the wilderness resource.” 

Michele McDaniel, supervisory rangeland specialist for Malheur Field Office, said that the limits on off-highway vehicle use will not affect ranchers with permits.

“Ranchers with grazing permits would be allowed to use motorized vehicles for administrative needs for livestock management and maintaining range improvements,” she said. 

If livestock grazing is found to be harming rangeland standards, she said, grazing permits would likely be adjusted but will not be taken away.

“If a rancher wants to voluntarily change their permit, [the amendment] changes the way those are processed internally in the BLM,” Blustain said.

John O’Keeffe, member of the Public Lands Council and former president of Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said,“We don’t expect to see a lot” of permits surrendered voluntarily.

 and other ranchers have doubts about the future of ranching on such protected lands.

“When we get these [wilderness] designations, usually they just show up as designations and there aren’t a lot of management changes,” he said.

But he is concerned that these designations could open up the door for future attempts to restrict grazing practices.

According to Brent Grasty, BLM Vale District planning and environmental coordinator, the amendment and environmental impact statement were updated after more than 4,000 “substantive comments [were] received from the public, tribes and local, state and federal partners.” The draft of the new rules was published in 2019.

“We are excited,” said Ryan Houston, executive director of Oregon Natural Desert Association. “The BLM has worked extremely hard on trying to develop a balanced proposal and they ultimately lean heavily on the advice and recommendations of the Resource Advisory Council.”

BLM Resource Advisory Councils are citizen groups that advise management practices on public lands and include conservationists, ranchers, tribes, academics and other public land users.