Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley on June 9 introduced legislation that would protect more than 2 million acres of the world-renowned high desert in southeastern Oregon from outside mineral exploitation, including oil and gas drilling, and build on long-time local economic strengths by helping farmers and ranchers.
Wyden and Merkley said the Southeastern Oregon Mineral Withdrawal and Economic Preservation and Development Act (see attached PDF) recognizes that public lands in Southeastern Oregon have hosted agriculture and cattle ranching for generations but face threats including the possibility of foreign companies who want to parachute into the state to explore for minerals such as uranium.
“This is deeply troubling because these mining operations are dangerous – to the existing local economies as well as to the overall environment,” Wyden said. “Blocking mining in these areas protects the local potential for continued creation of jobs in agriculture and recreation, and the growth of small businesses.”
"The Owyhee Canyonlands
are a special place that merit protection from outside mining operations,” Merkley said. “This bill does that while also protecting and enhancing ranching and other aspects of the local economy."
In addition to their bill permanently withdrawing 2 million-plus acres in Malheur County (map attached) from mineral operations, the legislation also creates and expands programs to support Southeastern Oregon communities so they can grow their traditional economies and build on their strengths.
These programs include grants to develop modern and efficient water storage systems to keep livestock out of rivers and streams and reduce the need to transport water. They also include infrastructure grants to improve roads for farmers and agriculture-related businesses, as well as job training for veterans and young people who want to get started in agriculture. The bill would establish an Agriculture Center for Excellence to expand local agriculture research. And it would provide additional assistance to local and rural firefighters while funding other infrastructure needs like wastewater treatment, drinking water systems, and broadband and cell phone tower deployment.
“The equation is simple: Healthy public lands mean healthy economies in this part of Oregon, and outside threats to those lands place local economies in peril.” Wyden said. “With these investments in Southeastern Oregon, communities can create jobs, train a new generation of workers, and modernize their economies.”