Rafts on Owyhee River, Photo Credit: Leon Werdinger
By Borden Beck, Oregon Chapter High Desert Committee
On October 29, I attended a Town Hall meeting in the small town of Adrian, Oregon, to share opinions and information about protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands. Adrian is the last small community before heading south into the vast expanse of the so far relatively undeveloped landscape that makes up the Owyhee. The meeting had been organized by state Rep. Cliff Bentz and was attended by about 500 people, including a slate of local officials and representatives from both Sen. Wyden’s and Rep Walden’s office.
While the majority of the attendees were undoubtedly locals from Malheur County, a good number of people also came from Bend, Boise, and even Portland, like me. I came as an individual, but also as one participating with the Sierra Club in the Owyhee Coalition, a group of nearly a dozen environmental and recreational organizations spearheading the effort to gain permanent protection for Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands.
The Owyhee Coalition has come up with a proposal to protect up to 2.5 million acres of this landscape with a mixture of Wilderness and National Conservation Area designations (see map of the proposal here). We are proposing this to be a legislated action, although similar protections could be achieved through a National Monument proclamation by President Obama’s administration in the event of congressional inaction.
The Owyhee region is perhaps the largest unroaded and undeveloped – and yet still unprotected – landscape in the lower 48 states and contains stunning geological formations, native cultural resources, critical wildlife habit, and unsurpassed recreation opportunities. It is also a long way from the rest of Oregon.
Adrian town hall; Photo Credit: Borden Beck
The Town Hall began with officials sharing their views briefly, and then Brent Fenty from ONDA (Oregon Natural Desert Association) presented the bones of the wilderness/NCA proposal that the Coalition has put forth. In addition to sharing reasons for protecting the landscape such as the very real threat of oil and gas exploration, he concisely tried to dispel misinformation about the proposal such as the notion of imagined road closures and grazing restrictions. The Coalition presentation was followed by a long session of brief public comments alternating between opponents and proponents of additional protection.
Those opposed to protection in general could be said to view the land as best protected by people living in the area – the “locals” – and that the region does not need any additional protection or government interference. They also are very fearful that some protected status will change their lifestyle and livelihood by restricting use, or “locking it up,” as they like to say.
Those in favor shared the benefits to some form of protection, such as the economic boost that increased recreation will provide (and has provided elsewhere with protective status), and of course we shared concerns about mining and increased off road vehicle use. We also shared the notion that these are in fact public lands that belong to everyone, not just the local community. I live in Oregon. I have all my life. I care deeply about the Owyhee region and am in love with it too. I deserve a say in how it is managed.
West Little Owyhee River Canyon; Photo Credit: Tim Neville
In general it is fair to say that this issue highlights the urban/rural divide we so often encounter in our state and elsewhere. It also highlights differing perceptions as to who should be allowed to make decisions about public lands management. And last, it brings out the deep disdain for the federal government that exists in some communities. There is clearly a lack of trust by local residents for both the federal government, as well as environmental organizations and those of us who advocate from Portland or Bend.
Where this lack of trust originates is complicated, but it does rest both in different values and experience, as well as misinformation spouted and believed. To go forth with this proposal, we will need to find a way encourage dialogue with local officials and residents who have been reluctant to do so, to engage in a process that will find some common or negotiated ground, something other than an all or none attitude. I stumbled into being the last person in favor to get called to speak and that was my attempted message – that we need to work together and that those unequivocally opposed to any form of protection will be left out of the conversation.
You can be part of this process by stepping up to take the time and call our U.S. Senators and ask him to take leadership to provide permanent protection for our Owyhee Canyonlands. We (the Owyhee Coalition) believe the time is NOW to encourage our senior Senator to act. Let him know you care enough to take action and that you believe we all have a say in how our public lands are managed. This landscape of the Owyhee deserves protection for future generations. Click here for our Senators’ phone contacts and a few talking points.
The next day, Oregon Chapter Conservation Director Rhett Lawrence and I were able to accompany some of the Owyhee Coalition members for a short visit to Leslie Gulch in the Owyhee country to unwind (see photo below). If you have not been there, put it on your bucket list!
Owyhee Coalition at Leslie Gulch; Photo Credit: Borden Beck