U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) talks during a town hall meeting in Ontario in April. Wyden today introduced new legislation to protect the Owyhee Canyonlands and safeguard the ranching industry. (The Enterprise/File).

VALE – Oregon’s U.S. senators on Thursday introduced legislation to protect the Owyhee Canyonlands and safeguard and improve federally-managed 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.

“Whether you are a rancher carrying on your family business in eastern Oregon, an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys hikes in the Canyonlands or an environmentalist seeking to protect wildlife habitat, you have a stake in the future of this unique and important landscape of Malheur County,” said Wyden in a prepared statement.

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

The proposal supports science-based management techniques to boost ranching as a conservation tool. The legislation would create loop roads to encourage tourism and stimulate local development of tourist-related amenities, improve state parks and enhance firefighting in the county.

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.”

Two groups – the Northwest Sportsfishing Industry Association and American Rivers - hailed the announcement Thursday.

“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.

The sweeping bill doesn’t create a national monument for the Canyonlands or amend the federal Taylor Grazing Act.

The legislation is the latest plot point in a long-standing dispute between a union of environmental groups and the local Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition. The coalition consists of 300 members and another 11,000 supporters.

The two sides have been divided for several years over how best to preserve the Canyonlands and on managing federal land in the county, much of it in the hands of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The stewardship coalition played a key role in scuttling a proposal to designate the Canyonlands a federal monument in the last days of President Barak Obama’s administration.

Last year members of the stewardship coalition met with federal lawmakers in Washington promote their own legislation that would assert more local control over rangeland.

In an April town hall in Ontario, Wyden announced he would lead an effort toward compromise on the contentious land-use priorities between area ranchers, residents and environmental groups.

That goal, Wyden said in April, was to create a legislative template to be considered by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Wyden is a member of that committee.

“We hoped for resolution on land designations and a unique BLM management model that protects grazing and other traditional land uses while providing local guidance. The final result accomplishes what we set out to do and we sincerely appreciate the dedication of everyone involved,” said Steve Russell, chair of the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition.

 

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

 

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