Ranchers, others express concern about Owyhee Canyonlands
JORDAN VALLEY — About 300 concerned ranchers, residents and county officials piled into the Jordan Valley high school gymnasium over the weekend to participate in a town hall held by U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., on the topic of federal land management policies in the Owyhee Canyonlands.
Everybody who spoke expressed some degree of disagreement with a proposed 2.5 million acre national monument in the area. A coalition of environmental groups is advocating for a monument, which can be created by the president of the United States.
The issue raised by ranchers who attended the event came down to the effect that possible future regulations on grazing would have on their livelihoods if the canyonlands monument proposal comes through. Environmental groups have maintained no such regulations would come into play if the monument is created.
"The canyonlands proposal would encroach upon 100 percent of my land," said Elias Elguren, a cattle rancher and treasurer of the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition. "If this went through, I would need to reconsider my entire business."
The coalition he is part of is being built with local communities in mind and has started a fundraising campaign in that effort, "to ensure that local communities are included in the future of the Owyhee Canyonlands and that Congress has a vote in the process," according to a news release by the coalition.
While the president can declare an area a national monument — President Barack Obama has approved 19 during his time in office — it takes an act of Congress to create wilderness. An alternate proposal by the Owyhee Coalition, led by the Oregon Natural Desert Association and other environmental groups, seeks a combination of wilderness, wild and scenic river, and conservation designations. That plan also totals 2.5 million acres.
Walden, when told of the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition, praised the group for its efforts and added his own two cents into the mix.
"We ought to have a say at the congressional level," he said, earning a round of applause from the crowd. "However, at the very minimum, we ought to have a say at the local level."
Environmental groups have raised concerns in the past that those living on the lands aren't being good stewards, a notion local ranchers brought up and dismissed Sunday, citing the land's current good condition.
"I think we all do a pretty good job of taking care of the land," he said, to short cheers and murmurs of agreement. "This is one of the most beautiful places. I think that is in part because of how it is being managed."
Hazel Johnson, a 96-year-old local resident who homesteaded on the land in 1942 when "there wasn't much to brag about," said she saw the land improve firsthand and agreed with Walden's sentiments.
"If this goes through,it will take away the privilege of living here," she said.
State Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, asked Walden what to do about the issue that the Canyonlands proposition has turned into an "us versus them" mentality. Walden acknowledged this and called for cooperation between all sides for any possible resolution to be made.
"We can't create this bunker mentality," he said. "We need to work together, and we need to be unified."
Walden said he was looking to get other congressmen on board along with changing language in the federal Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows Congress or the U.S. president to make monument designations. He also, along with Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe, called for local communities to spread the word and educate others on the canyonlands proposal and to write letters to state officials expressing their concerns.
"The size of the crowd was the second largest turnout I've been in," he said. "That, in and of itself, reinforces the idea that the government needs to hear this and listen."
Most Malheur County citizens have expressed clear opposition to the canyonlands proposal. In a nonbinding advisory vote in early March, 90 percent of the 54 percent of Malheur County residents who voted opposed creating a national monument.