An audience member listens closely as Sen. Ron Wyden addresses a crowd in Ontario on Saturday, April 13. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

ONTARIO – U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, announced last Saturday he will spearhead an effort to generate a multi-use plan for the Owyhee Canyonlands.

Wyden, delivering the news at a town hall session at the Oregon Army National Guard Armory in Ontario, said the aim is to create a land use blueprint with input from ranchers, conservationists and residents. He said he wants to create a land use template for legislation that could reviewed by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources as early as this fall. Wyden is a member of the committee. Wyden emphasized the effort will be collaborative. He said it will focus on finding a philosophical middle ground for an area that has long fueled debate between conservation groups and Malheur County ranchers and residents.

“Our team will be talking to everybody. That’s how we do it,” he said. He dubbed the endeavor the Community Empowerment for Owyhee – or CEO – and said his office will “have to reach out to a lot of people.”

He said the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition, the local rangeland advocacy group, approached him for help last December, when group leaders visited Washington, D.C.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) talks to the crowd during a town hall session in Ontario April 13. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

Coalition chair “Steve Russell and the group asked me to step in,” said Wyden. Wyden said the CEO effort will focus on protecting current ranching uses in the Owyhee area, preserving the unique culture of the area while also protecting “the bedrock environmental value” of the Owyhees.

In that effort, he said, “everyone will have to be talking to people who they disagree with.”

“We need to get going on this because it has been going on so long. The Owyhee is a special place, and this has dragged on for years and years,” said Wyden.

After the town hall, Russell and coalition vice chairman Mark MacKenzie said they are encouraged by Wyden’s effort.

 “It has a very good chance of producing something. Everybody is invited to the table and we are trying to keep this as nonpartisan as possible,” said MacKenzie. The Owyhee Basin Stewardship has more than 300 paying members and another 11,000 supporters. The group was formed to fight a federal monument designation of the Owyhee Canyonlands.

The monument proposal – supported by an alliance of environmental groups, citizens and businesses – aimed to preserve 2.5 million acres, either through action by Congress or a monument designation under the Antiquities Act. However, President Barack Obama declined to endorse the plan. Since then, the stewardship coalition has worked to develop a broader and more flexible land management plan for Malheur County.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) faced an array of questions from local residents during the town hall session Saturday in Ontario. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

Corie Harlan, of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a key member of a collection of conservation organizations that sought to establish the federal monument, said Wyden’s role is crucial.

“We are thrilled to see the strong leadership from our senior senator on this really important issue. This is what we’ve been calling for. We look forward to working with him,” said Harlan. The Owyhee plan was not the only topic of interest to the more than 50 people attending the town hall. Wyden also answered questions about immigration, forest policies, social security, infrastructure, the pharmaceutical industry and new tax laws.

Wyden noted his family fled the Nazis and that immigration is a bedrock American value. He believes the current immigration crisis is mired in partisan politics, and “we’ve got to decide if are we going to get on with fixing this or just have a big old blame game.”

“I’ve always felt we need to enforce the (immigration) laws on the books,” he said. “A big problem at the border is just plain mismanagement.”

Jordan Valley rancher Elias Eiguren asks U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) a question regarding immigration during a town hall session Saturday at the Oregon Army National Guard armory in Ontario. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

He called the recent college admissions bribery scandal – where 50 people, including two Hollywood actresses, have been charged by federal prosecutors – “sickening” and pointed out that community colleges like Treasure Valley Community College are good for the community and the nation.

“There are few things we do in America that are more proactive then helping a school like Treasure Valley,” said Wyden.

Wyden said President Donald Trump’s administration failed when it did not place infrastructure improvements at the top of its list of priorities when it came to power, calling that lapse “legislative malpractice.”

Asked about forest practices in Oregon, Wyden noted the benefits of legislation passed by Congress last year that set aside money for Forest Service firefighting. In the past, as fierce wildfires rolled over the West, the Forest Service often drained its firefighting budget and was forced to use money earmarked for fire prevention.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Wyden, will not only help with firefighting but also allow the Forest Service to focus on fire prevention work, such as clearing out dead and dying trees that fuel fires across Oregon.

“I am spending a lot of time on these fire issues,” said Wyden. Questioned about the 2nd Amendment, Wyden stressed he isn’t against it. However, he said some people – such as individuals on a terror watch list, those with mental health issues or people convicted of domestic violence – should not have a weapon.

“I don’t think believing someone on a terror watch list should not get a gun is a violation of the 2nd Amendment,” Wyden said.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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