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Clash in the Canyonlands 

Some want to turn a giant swath of land in Southeast Oregon into a National Monument. Others think it's a waste of time.

Owyhee, Three Fingers — Photo by Mark Lisk

Owyhee, Three Fingers — Photo by Mark Lisk

If you want to ponder the wonder of the universe under a vast umbrella of stars, head to Owyhee country.

Native Oregonian and Bend-area resident Karl Findling calls it "one of the darkest and most remote regions" in the lower 48 states—and that renders it perfect for watching the stars. Findling, who grew up in Ontario hunting and fishing the area, says there's no light pollution from nearby urban centers to stand between you and the universe, making the Owyhee Canyonlands' millions of acres along the border of Nevada and Idaho pretty special indeed.

Meanwhile, rancher Bob Skinner, whose family has been in the Jordan Valley for seven generations, says you can easily get lost there and never see another vehicle or person. It's so remote that Skinner is often called upon to conduct search and rescue missions using his plane. Recently he located a lost antelope hunter who was severely dehydrated and disoriented.

The Owyhee country also represents a unique western history, largely lost in today's modern world. Multi-generation ranch families still work the land and graze their cattle on private as well as public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The ancestors of these families witnessed the last of the Native American uprisings. The landscape is dotted with landmarks where the Bannocks and Paiutes stood their ground as European settlers staked their future in this dry sage region.

Near Rome, Oregon, a monument honors the son of the famous Native American Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman who guided the Lewis & Clark expedition through territories known only to natives. Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was born during the expedition in 1805 in North Dakota, as noted in the journal of Meriwether Lewis. He traveled to the Pacific and back to Missouri, carried on his mother's back for much of the journey. As a young boy he lived with William Clark, who helped educate him.

Charbonneau became a trapper, hunter and respected Army scout. He would later become part of the California gold rush, living and working near Auburn. In 1866 he departed California in search of other opportunities in Idaho and Montana. Along the way, he fell ill and died near the Owyhee River.

Charbonneau's nearby grave is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Owyhee's Naming

The name "Owyhee" originated almost 200 years ago when three Hawaiian natives known as Owyhee—an Anglican version of the word Hawai'i—joined an exploration of the area in 1819. According to historians, the three men left the main expedition during the winter of 1819-20 to explore the unknown territory. They were never heard from again. In their memory the fur trappers began calling the region "Owyhee."

The region is famous for its breathtaking scenery and red-rock canyonlands. Many—including Tim Davis who lives in Ontario, Oregon, and heads the support group "Friends of the Owyhee"—compare it to the scenic landscape of southern Utah. Much of the river has been set aside with a "wild and scenic" designation. Oregon's desert trail winds through the region, providing hikers a type of solitude and landscape seen in few other places. The unbroken sage prairie is also home to concentrations of the iconic sage grouse (which recently dodged an endangered listing), California bighorn sheep, antelope, mule deer, elk, Chukar, pheasant, and the native redband trout, which has adapted to the warmer waters of the southeast Oregon desert lands.

A Wilderness or National Monument Designation?

The area also contains rich mineral deposits, including uranium, and many fear its potential extraction. Many of those who cherish the Owyhee have proposed permanent conservation measures to protect it from commercial development. But controversial proposals to establish a 2.5-million acre wilderness in the heart of the Owyhee have been met with much local opposition. Wilderness designations have become nearly impossible to move through Congress, so supporters have turned to the President in hopes that he will use his executive powers to declare the area a National Monument before he leaves office. If he does, it would permanently protect a landscape larger than Yellowstone National Park. An argument can be made that President Obama might take such action based on the fact that he has established 19 such monuments during his two terms in office.

Davis is one of the many supporters who want permanent protection of the region. He has deep roots in the Owyhee country and has spread the ashes of family members in the region. His son Jordan is named after the valley where many ranchers live. Jordan's middle name is Owyhee. "Our hope is that everyone will agree to sit down at the same table, be good stewards of the land, and come to agreement on how to protect the area," he explains.

A Call for Preservation

Davis wants to keep industrialization and mineral extraction out. "We want to keep this place as it is," he says. As for the potential of a monument designation by the President, Davis says it's hard to speculate, and he thinks the election needs to play out before any decisions are made. In the meantime, he expresses frustration that there appears to be more outside rather than local support for permanent protection of the area. Groups such as Keen footwear in Portland and many outside environmental organizations are the loudest voices for protection. But Davis defends them, saying that everyone has a right to voice an opinion no matter where they live. "These are public lands. We all own them, and everybody should have a voice."

Liz Hamilton, head of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association based in the Portland area, is also a strong supporter for permanent protection of the Owyhee region. NSIA lobbies on behalf of the business interests of those who earn a living fishing. Hamilton says conversations around protection of the Owyhee region have been ongoing for decades. She suggests it's time to end discussions and implement protections. Calling herself an addicted angler, Hamilton is optimistic. "I think permanent protections are in our future. Regardless of what path protection takes, this is something that benefits Oregon, Washington and Idaho. It benefits our entire nation to take care of something this spectacular."

Ranchers Worry About Change

Longtime rancher Bob Skinner says he sees nothing good about a National Monument designation for the Canyonlands. Skinner is a former president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association and a current officer of the Public Lands Council, which represents cattle and sheep producers who hold public lands grazing permits in the west. "Without exception, every single one of these land grabs has been a disaster for the people on the ground." Skinner says ranchers worry about their grazing rights, which he suggests can easily change under federal designations such as a National Monument. If it is designated, he believes it will lead to a slowdown in the ranching economy of the area.

"I'm not saying there aren't places that need to be designated, but these huge land grabs are just absolutely ridiculous." He lashes out at environmental organizations supporting the effort. "They have to have something continuously to keep their membership growing." Skinner believes President Obama won't make the designation before he leaves office.

The Oregon vs. Idaho Approach

One of the stronger voices for permanent protection from development has been the Oregon Natural Desert Association in Bend. Its Executive Director, Brent Fenty, says Oregon needs to catch up with Idaho, which protected over 500,000 acres of the Owyhee country as wilderness when the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act was signed by President Obama in 2009. "It's unfortunate that anyone has to have an argument about protecting this area. It should be about how you protect it." Fenty cites polls that show the majority of Oregonians think the region is worth protecting. He also says that over 35,000 people across the state have signed petitions asking for permanent protection. "The unfortunate thing is that folks have decided to use the monument designation proposal as kind of a boogeyman as something to say 'no' to without offering any solutions."

While Fenty cites supporting polls and petitions, residents in Malheur County—where the Owyhee Canyonlands are located—cast an advisory vote on the proposal in March. The results were overwhelmingly against designating the Canyonlands a National Monument. Turnout for a special election was high, and 90 percent of those voting cast a 'no' vote to the monument proposal. State Representative Cliff Bentz of Ontario told the Source Weekly, "This land needs protection, but a monument will accomplish just the opposite. There are a lot better ways to achieve the desired outcome than stamping the word 'Monument' on the map and declaring a job well done. You don't come in with an executive order by the President and hope things work out."

When asked what conservation measures Malheur County residents would favor, Bentz emphasized the importance of protecting the lands. "If that is our goal, we need to figure out what's being done now, what has been done, and what will work best to keep these lands in their current condition." He says the local community needs to be involved in a balanced approach to sort it out. He says that has been a difficult process because the area covers a huge expanse of Southeast Oregon approximately 120 miles long and 60 miles wide. "We need to come together to figure it out without the threat of a monument designation. That is not the way to manage millions of acres of land." Pointing toward the successful collaboration effort by diverse groups to avoid an endangered species listing for the sage grouse, Bentz says he is optimistic that the same process would produce a positive outcome for the Owyhee Canyonlands.

But ONDA's Fenty disagrees with Rep. Bentz, saying that there's been enough conversation. "It's time to give this place the protection it deserves. If we fail to do that, then we'll look back and see that this area has suffered death by a thousand cuts, and that's something nobody wants."

Few seem to have a clear answer as to whether the Owyhee Canyonlands will become a National Monument by executive order of a lame duck President who has a strong history of creating them. So far the White House has been quiet about such a decision, but lobbying efforts by Keen Footwear and environmental organizations continue. At the Congressional level, Representative Earl Blumenauer has asked the President to make the designation in a letter directed to the White House this week. But the opposition speaks just as loudly. Congressman Greg Walden, whose district encompasses Central and Eastern Oregon where the Canyonlands are located, has urged the President to take no action. And local residents have spoken loudly against such a designation with an overwhelming advisory vote against a monument but have failed to offer their own conservation plan.

One thing most on both sides seem to agree on is that the Owyhee needs to be protected from commercial development with some form of conservation designation. They simply disagree on how that should be done.

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