A stretch of the Malheur River outside Vale. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Portions of the Owyhee River in Malheur County and several of its tributaries would be designated “wild and scenic” under legislation pending in the U.S. Senate.

They are among 4,700 miles of rivers and streams in Oregon that would gain federal protection through the Wild and Scenic Rivers system.

Legislation introduced in February by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley incorporates public feedback generated since 2019, with over 15,000 sections of rivers and streams nominated for protection by 2,500 people. 

In Malheur County, the proposal would designate “additional segments to the Owyhee River and selected tributaries, segments in the Oregon Canyon Mountains, segments of Succor Creek, and a segment of the lower Malheur River, Black Canyon Creek, Canyon Creek, Cottonwood Creek and Rattlesnake Creek” as “Wild and Scenic,” according to Hank Stern, a representative for Wyden’s office. 

“Oregonians made it loud and clear: they cherish Oregon’s rivers and want them protected for generations to come,” Wyden said in a press release.

The River Democracy Act would restrict new mining, timber harvest, and road construction within a half mile of a protected river’s banks. Existing livestock grazing and farming, however, could continue, and some recreational development might be permitted. 

The degree to which a river is preserved in its natural state would depend on its exact classification within the law. For example, for “wild” rivers, motorized travel by land or water is “generally not compatible” whereas with “scenic” rivers, there may be more flexibility, and “recreational” rivers have the most flexibility.

Tighter management of Oregon’s rivers would reduce wildfire risk, improve the quality of drinking water and expand recreation in a way that adds jobs.

Merkley acknowledged in an interview with the Enterprise that the legislation is “to some degree an affair of the heart,” citing “the joy of our wild rivers.”

“We’ve altered many of them, but there are some incredible stretches left,” Merkley said.

Tom Sharp, a Burns rancher who is president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said that while his organization recognized the public value of preserving wild and scenic rivers, “we need a lot more information before we’re comfortable with the content” of the new legislation.

Sharp pointed out that the proposed 1-mile protected corridors that the River Democracy Act would create encompass 3 million acres of land throughout Oregon. 

“We’ve been assured by Sen. Wyden’s staff that grazing would not be impacted. However, we’re not so certain that that’s accurate because of the setback distances from the river and the mixture of private and public lands,” said Sharp. “Would (livestock) be fenced out, how would they be fenced out, and who would pay for those improvements? What about those private landowner water rights that exist?”

“The legislation was careful to exclude anything that could impinge on private property,” said Stern. 

Sharp said that the Cattlemen’s Association remained open to discussions with Wyden’s staff. 

“We’ve asked the staff to provide maps of the proposed waterways and corridor areas showing what lands are private, what lands are public, and to address those questions of how we will actually mitigate fire risk,” Sharp said.

He is concerned that fire risk will increase if grazing is limited and vegetation grows out of control.

Tim Davis, executive director of the Friends of the Owyhee, said that while more miles of wild and scenic rivers was an exciting development, he noted that Malheur County has over 180 miles designated as wild or scenic in the 1980s.

Davis said that the River Democracy Act would help keep Malheur County’s irrigation waters clean. 

He also said that the potential designation of the lower Owyhee and part of Succor Creek as recreational was “super important.” The River Democracy Act would designate a total of 82.7 new miles in the Owyhee as wild and scenic.

“It could be an economic driver for smaller communities in our county,” he said. “It’s going to create a funding source to get more improvements in the lower canyon. It’s going to bring people to the county, and people are going to spend money while visiting.” 

The senators are still inviting feedback on the proposal. 

The proposal incorporates feedback from Oregon’s nine tribes and the Nez Perce.

“Tribal nations offered valuable input, nominated rivers, and Senator Wyden was able to include language ensuring that tribes can enter into co-management agreements with federal land managers, that cultural restoration projects are allowed, and that native species management includes tribal voices,” said Stern. 

Public comments responding to the drafted legislation or nominating additional segments of rivers or streams for the wild and scenic designation can be submitted through Wyden’s website

News tip? Contact Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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