A measure in Congress would create a 58,000-acre federal wilderness in the area around Sutton Mountain and the Painted Hills, in order to help boost economic development in Wheeler County.
The bill, introduced by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., aims to draw attention to the area for outdoor enthusiasts and also sets aside 2,000 acres of land for economic development, such as an RV park, an airstrip or search and rescue facilities.
“With this legislation, we’ll make sure that future generations will be able to experience some of Oregon’s most incredible landmarks, while also creating jobs and economic opportunities in the county now,” Merkley said in a press statement.
The legislation, known as the Sutton Mountain and Painted Hills Area Preservation and Economic Enhancement Act, would protect four new tracts of public land, known as Sutton Mountain, Pat’s Cabin, Painted Hills and Dead Dog.
The newly protected areas would provide recreational access to the 58,000 acres of public land in Wheeler County, which include Sutton Mountain, the Painted Hills and John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, according to the statement.
Originally introduced in 2015, the bill was delayed due to “small details that had to be worked out,” according to Sara Hottman, state communications director for Merkley.
“A broad community effort was made to write this bill,” she said. “It was a community-driven process and the community needed time to come to a consensus.”
The most significant change in the process was putting the 2,000 acres of economic development land, known as the “Golden Triangle,” in the hands of the city of Mitchell, the closest town, with a population of less than 150. It had earlier been designated as land to be administered by Wheeler County.
The area, located about 42 miles northeast of Prineville along U.S. Highway 26, is of interest to outdoor enthusiasts wanting to explore a variety of landscapes, including grasslands, riparian areas, sagebrush shrub steppe, woodlands and rivers. Wheeler is Oregon’s least populated county, with only around 1,400 people.
The Painted Hills — called one of the “7 Wonders of Oregon” by the website Travel Oregon — is a rugged landscape of yellow, gold, black and red colored stratifications. It’s a popular place for hikers and fossil hunters. The 4,700-foot-high Sutton Mountain is carpeted by wildflowers in spring and home to herds of pronghorn, elk and mule deer.
Around 75,000 people visited the Painted Hills in 2016 according to the National Park Service.
Eric Charapata, co-owner of the local brewery Tiger Town Brewing Company in Mitchell, said despite its small size, the town residents are used to an influx of tourists thanks to periodic festivals and events that draw big crowds.
“Mitchell used to be a mining town, a logging town and cow town; it still is a cow town in some ways, but now it’s also a tourist town,” said Charapata.
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