ONTARIO — U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both D-Ore., on Nov. 7 introduced legislation that would designate more than 1.1 million acres of the Owyhee River Canyonlands in Malheur County as wilderness.

The area is important to the local economy because it includes significant grazing land, recreation destinations and other assets. Recent research there has focused on preserving sage grouse and other wildlife habitat, and native grasses.

The Malheur County Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act — largely a result of collaboration among ranchers, conservation groups, university researchers and others — aims to maintain and improve rangeland, preserve grazing, and protect areas important to wildlife and recreation.

The legislation supports science-based adaptive management of federal lands “to make efficient ranching a continued conservation tool and ensure real-time management responses to threats on the ecological integrity of the lands,” the senators said in a joint statement.

Adaptive management aims to encourage flexibility by allowing for adjustments based on current or recent results. To help ensure management actions produce ecological improvements, the legislation calls for creating a monitoring network of ranchers, businesses, environmental groups and land managers.

Malheur proposed wilderness

Grazing would be allowed to continue, including in newly designated wilderness areas. The legislation would provide funding for research, active-management activities and monitoring as well as enforcement of anticipated uses. It would also maintain existing roads, and establish “loop roads” to encourage tourism while improving access for firefighting.

The legislation would not create a national monument, amend the Taylor Grazing Act, impede current projects, impact water rights or irrigation districts, or affect management of Owyhee Reservoir.

It would give wilderness protection to parts of the Trout Creek Mountains, Castle Rock, Leslie Gulch, Honeycombs, Three Forks and Jordan Craters. Wild and Scenic River management would be used on 14.7 miles of the Owyhee River below Owyhee Reservoir.

The legislation “ensures the safeguarded protections of desert wildlife habitat, native and rare plants, and vast wild places for future generations to enjoy” while also making sure ecological health drives management, Friends of the Owyhee said in an online newsletter.

The Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition, which includes ranchers and business owners, for more than three years has played a key role in discussions that led to the legislation.

OBSC Chairman Steve Russell said in the senators’ joint statement that the coalition hoped for resolution of land designations and “a unique BLM (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) model that protects grazing and other traditional land uses while providing for local guidance. We also hoped to create economic opportunities for Malheur County. The final result accomplishes what we set out to do, and we sincerely appreciate the dedication of everyone involved.”

BLM Vale District Manager Don Gonzalez said the agency does not comment on pending legislation. BLM has been working on amending a plan for managing about 4.6 million acres in southeastern Oregon; a final environmental impact statement is expected early next year.

“Conservation is good for everyone, and protecting the Owyhee will only strengthen this important and resilient rural economy,” Wyden said in the statement.

Merkley said the legislation “is the result of ranchers, conservationists and leaders coming together with a shared mission to protect this incredible land, and working to preserve the beauty and vitality of Malheur County for generations to come.”

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