Speculation has simmered for months — spiking with each newly created or expanded national monument — over whether President Barack Obama would grant the same status to Owyhee Canyonlands.
“We still don’t know what to expect,” said Elias Eiguren, a fifth-generation Jordan Valley rancher and the treasurer of the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition, who echoed the view of many watching the outcome for the Southeast Oregon site.
Conservation and recreation groups have long sought to permanently protect about 2.5 million acres there, warning of threats from drilling and mining and impacts from off-road vehicles to the remote site known for its diverse vegetation, geology, wildlife habitat and connections to other open lands that help animals migrate more easily. A coalition of conservation proponents includes Oregon Natural Desert Association, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society.
Ranchers, cattlemen, real estate groups and others have protested the use of a monument designation and have called for a vote from Congress instead, saying that a monument could harm the local economy, limit access to the land and remove grazing and ranching capabilities of people whose families have lived and worked in the area for generations. That side has its own coalition, including Eiguren and the Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, Oregon Association of Realtors and Association of Oregon Counties.
“Obviously, there’s not a lot of time left for additional designations,” said Thomas O’Keefe, northwest stewardship director for American Whitewater, a whitewater resources conservation nonprofit and member of the coalition urging Owyhee’s protection.
A ‘blunt instrument’
Presidents have the power to proclaim historic landmarks and other sites on public lands as monuments through the one-page American Antiquities Act of 1906. They tend to use it at the end of their terms, partly to avoid backlash. For instance, over the summer, Obama created the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine and greatly expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument northwest of Hawaii.
Last week, he created the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada.
ONDA, the local group spearheading conservation of Owyhee, said its future efforts for the area would follow its coalition’s plans if Obama does not designate the site a monument. If a monument fails, O’Keefe expects efforts will continue to try to conserve the area. Legislation, for instance, could address different issues with Owyhee — both locals’ needs and conservation aims — in a more nuanced way than national monument designations that he called “somewhat of a blunt instrument.”
He noted the land’s large size and the interest and attention that it has attracted. For instance, the coalition’s mailing list has reached about 85,000 people.
“And that won’t go away,” O’Keefe said of such support.
The opposing coalition formed to block any monument designation and remains focused on that goal.
“That’s really the entire extent of the campaign,” said Ryan Frank, a principal at Gallatin Public Affairs representing that coalition.
Efforts so far have not looked further into the future, Eiguren said.
“We haven’t put any formal thought into that,” he said.
But coalition members will meet in early January to brainstorm ideas for the future and the full organization will formally meet in February to decide its next steps. Eiguren said he wants to see something come of the momentum created so far, to benefit the community and public lands in the region.
Oregon’s two senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, introduced the Southeastern Oregon Mineral Withdrawal and Economic Preservation and Development Act in June. It would protect more than 2 million acres of the high desert land from “mineral withdrawal.” Ranching, grazing, recreation and other uses of the land could continue. The proposal also calls for creating and expanding programs meant to support communities in that region. A spokesman for Wyden said the senator had no further news on a monument possibility or comment on future possibilities for the site, but that his Owyhee legislation would be reintroduced with the new Congress.
Meanwhile, Char Miller, a professor and director of the environmental analysis program at Pomona College in California and the author of several books on public lands issues and environmental history in the West, is interested to see the response from the Donald Trump administration to Obama’s monument designations.
Because the monument designation stems from the Antiquities Act, it’s not a regulatory action that can be easily rolled back, Miller said. Rolling it back would entail giving up executive authority, something presidents rarely do partly because they don’t want to cripple the power of future presidents.
“Because it’s about the institution. It’s not about them,” he said of the office of the presidency.
For instance, former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did not try to roll back monument designations made by their predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
“You don’t take away from the office authority that it has,” Miller said. “At least, that’s been true for 110 years.”
Miller noted that the Antiquities Act was crafted by a Republican legislator and got support from Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service.
“To my mind, Trump needs to demonstrate, what kind of Republican is he?” Miller said. “And the environment is a place he can do that.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7812,