Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Editorial: Seek consensus before establishing more federal control of canyon lands

The Owyhee canyon country of southern Malheur County is the largest undeveloped and unprotected area in the lower 48 states, and a century from now Americans would be grateful to their ancestors for keeping it that way.

But the federal government, which manages nearly all of the Owyhee region on behalf of its citizens, has a long way to go before it can add protections to the area’s wild character. Any new protective designation, such as the current proposal for a national monument, should come with local acquiescense, and preferably support, which is now lacking.

Last year 90 percent of Malheur County voters opposed a national monument in a non-binding advisory election. In some precincts the vote was 100 percent against the idea.

Such opposition makes it unlikely that Congress would approve a wilderness designation for the area, as occurred in 2009 with the creation of the Owyhee River Wilderness in Idaho.

A national monument designation, which President Obama could approve without congressional action, would be greeted in Malheur County as an abuse of federal power, which helps explain why the Department of the Interior, whose Bureau of Land Management has jurisdiction over most of the Owyhee area, has taken no position on the idea.

The grievances of those who make a living in the arid regions of the Intermountain West burst into the open earlier this year with the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in neighboring Harney County. The tactics of the occupiers were generally rejected, but one of their central complaints — that increasingly restrictive federal land management policies threaten the livelihoods of high desert ranchers — is widely shared.

The anxieties of people who live in the area are real. Jordan Valley, the only town of any size in southern Malheur County, has shrunk to 175 residents in 2013 from 475 in 1980.

It’s easy to see why development restrictions such as those that would accompany a monument designation would be opposed as putting an end to any hope of a rebound.

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