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Pass Owyhee Act to protect canyonlands

As Oregonians continue to face challenges from catastrophic wildfires, the coronavirus pandemic, and economic uncertainty, we’ve seen how vital public lands are to people’s well-being and way-of-life.

As an avid outdoorsman and a patron and supplier to many local outdoor and sporting good stores throughout our state, I believe we are seeing something unprecedented play out in our country. From hunting, fishing and camping gear flying off the shelves at local shops to an increased demand for campers and trailers to more cars at the trailhead, Americans are seeking out and enjoying our public lands and rivers more than ever before.

Our shared natural heritage of public lands and rivers is one of the best parts of our state and our country. Our public lands and rivers are also something we all have an obligation to steward and leave better than we found them. To turn this trend of increased use into durable, positive economic outcomes for rural communities and to prevent our public lands and waters from being loved to death, we need to be proactive. We need to do more.

It’s time to invest in Oregon’s communities and public lands. Oregonians now have an important opportunity — over five decades in the making — to do just that. The Malheur Community Empowerment for Owyhee Act (S 2828) provides Malheur County with vital economic development opportunities that support local economies and communities at a time when it is needed most, while safeguarding Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands and surrounding public lands and rivers for recreation and wildlife habitat for current and future generations.

The Owyhee Canyonlands is one of Oregon’s great natural icons — it is often called our state’s Grand Canyon. This vast, remote southeastern corner of Oregon is truly an irreplaceable gem. This area is home to over 200 species, including native redband rainbow trout, chukar, mule deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope. The Owyhee and public lands and waters in Malheur County offer exceptional and abundant opportunities for recreation and respite that are central to our family traditions, including hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, rafting, birding, and star gazing.

Outdoor recreation is the backbone of Oregon’s economy. In Oregon alone, outdoor recreation generates $16.4 billion in consumer spending, 172,000 jobs, $5.1 billion in wages and salaries and $749 million in state and local tax revenue. S 2828 will be a boon to Oregon’s rural and outdoor economy by safeguarding land from industrial development, creating more long-lasting jobs and providing additional resources to better manage, protect and restore millions of acres of public lands.

In addition to protecting special, threatened places and providing critical economic development opportunities, this legislation also provides a clear mandate to the Bureau of Land Management to manage all public lands in Malheur County in ways that improve their ecological health over time. It supports outdoor recreation and tourism through investments that direct economic benefits to local communities. And it provides a robust framework for much-needed restoration and responsive, science-driven monitoring and adaptive management for these irreplaceable lands and waters. Furthermore, working farms and ranches will continue to operate just as they have for decades.

Perhaps most important of all: The bill is the result of Sen. Ron Wyden bringing community members with different perspectives — and a shared respect of the Owyhee — together to find solutions for managing and preserving this area. Thanks to Sen. Wyden’s leadership, we have a bill that breaks decades of gridlock and makes tangible progress when Oregonians need it most. The passage earlier this year of the Great American Outdoors Act demonstrated that in these divisive times, public lands and rivers bring all Americans together to find common ground. This bill can do the same.

Our state faces many challenges, and a healthy and prosperous future for Oregon is dependent on the well-being of all of our people, the economic resiliency of our communities, and the health of public lands and rivers. Passing S.2828 is a keyway to achieve all of these goals and more. This bill deserves the support of our elected leaders and Oregonians. I urge you to join me in calling upon Sen. Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Greg Walden to work together to refine and pass this vital legislation this year.

Dave Strahan of Grants Pass is a territory manager for Big Rock Sports and an executive board member of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.