Sen. Ron Wyden | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Sen. Ron Wyden

The word "unique" is the most overworked adjective in the advertising copywriter's lexicon, but in the case of Bend's Badlands area, it's justified.

The rugged 30,000-acre expanse just 20 miles northeast of town holds a combination of geological features, archaeological sites, wildlife and vegetation - including rare wildflowers and junipers that were growing before Columbus landed - that would be almost impossible to find anywhere else.

For more than a decade, the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and other conservation groups have been trying to get the Badlands protected as wilderness by the federal government, but their efforts have been stymied in Congress. On Tuesday, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden announced that he's going to take another shot at it.

At a press conference sponsored by ONDA, Wyden said his wilderness bill will include the portion of the Badlands designated by the Bureau of Land Management as a Wilderness Study Area (WSA) plus several hundred additional acres. Creating the Oregon Badlands Wilderness, Wyden said, "will tell the world that Central Oregon is a place with an unbelievable menu of recreation, where you can ski in the morning on one side of town and enjoy the solitude of high desert wilderness in the afternoon on the other."

Despite the tourist-brochure prose, Wyden makes a good point. As an economic report commissioned by ONDA in 2007 put it: "Current growth trends and a highly consumptive pattern of land development in the region are rapidly consuming open space and point to the urgency of protecting fragile open lands that constitute a regional competitive advantage."

English translation: As Bend expands, it's increasingly important to protect this island of unspoiled landscape close to the city as a draw for visitors, and also as a refuge for locals seeking escape from congestion, noise and pollution. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts charge that wilderness supporters want to "lock up" the landscape for everyone but themselves. But there are millions of acres available in Oregon and the West for ORVers to use, including more than 400,000 acres adjacent to the Badlands.

Motorized vehicles already are banned in the Badlands WSA under the BLM's 2005 management plan. So why bother with wilderness if the Badlands already are protected? The big reason is that the protection provided by WSA status isn't ironclad. As the ranks of ORV users grow and they clamor for more places to play, pressure to lift or loosen the motorized vehicle ban could grow.

Public support in Central Oregon for a Badlands wilderness is strong - nearly 70%, according to a 2005 poll. But Rep. Greg Walden says he won't support wilderness designation unless all local governments are on board, and the Deschutes County Commission has balked at the idea.

There's an election coming and a new county commission might see things differently. In the meantime, here's the GLASS SLIPPER to Ron Wyden for making the effort again.

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