Guest Column

Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Jeff Merkley have introduced the ‘‘Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act’’ (MCEOA). The senators can be commended for taking on such a controversial issue and trying to find a solution for public lands protection.

While the bill would designate more than a million acres of new wilderness, and among other positive things, establish a native plant nursery, MCEOA has so many bad provisions that are not in the public interest that it should be opposed.

The legislation starts out with some high-minded language that asserts: “The purpose of this Act is to promote the long-term ecological health of the Federal land …”

However, it then promotes policies that are inconsistent with that goal. The legislation reads as if written by Malheur County ranchers, bends over backward to mandate and promote livestock grazing.

The legislation makes several false assertions like alleging that livestock may be used for the ecological “improvement” of public lands. Yet livestock production is the single greatest source of damage to riparian areas, species endangerment, spread of weeds and flammable plants like cheatgrass, killing of native predators like coyotes and wolves, pollution of water, spread of disease like transmission of pneumonia from domestic sheep to bighorn sheep, and forage competition with native herbivores from ground squirrels to elk. And there is the annual dewatering our rivers to grow hay for livestock feed.

MCEOA goes beyond most legislation to demand that the federal government “protect… western traditions.” Why is supporting a lifestyle (which given the above issues could be more characterized as a deathstyle) that depends on the degradation of the public property considered a value worthy of protecting?

The legislation hands over local land management to a Malheur Community Empowerment for Owyhee group (CEO) that will appoint members to another advisory group — both clearly designed to maintain local rancher control over federal lands. These groups would oversee grazing and monitoring on public lands (what about the BLM employees?) and promote vegetation manipulation projects (like planting non-native grasses for cattle consumption and/or removal of native juniper and sagebrush).

In effect MCEOA legalizes what the Bundy hoodlums tried to do by force — it excludes the larger public from the public lands decision-making process and makes livestock grazing the main focus of public lands management.

Agriculture, which includes a lot more than grazing, only contributes 1.6% to Malheur County residents’ income. The percentage resulting from livestock production on public lands is a tiny fraction of this total.

While on the surface the designation of approximately 1.1 million acres of new wilderness would seem to be a positive feature of the legislation, there are many problematic aspects to even this part of bill. The bill would release from interim wilderness protection some 209,521 acres of existing wilderness study areas and the release of another 856,199 acres of lands of wilderness character acres. In the end we lose more protection for public lands than we gain by wilderness designation.

The MCEOA sets a really bad precedent by reducing environmental analysis of site-specific project review that is currently legally mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

This legislation is also filled with taxpayer-funded and questionable projects — totaling around a billion dollars over 10 years, but nothing to pay or even allow private party grazing permit buyouts. Mind you that grazing on public lands is a privilege and could be eliminated at any time. Grazing permit buyout generously pays a rancher to give up grazing privileges.

Without significant changes in this legislation, even the establishment of approximately 1.1 million acres of new wilderness is not worth the precedent-setting bad provisions of this legislation.

The legislation hands over local land management to a Malheur Community Empowerment for Owyhee group (CEO) that will appoint members to another Advisory Group — both clearly designed to maintain local rancher control over federal lands.

… In effect MCEOA legalizes what the Bundy hoodlums tried to do by force — it excludes the larger public from the public lands decision-making process and makes livestock grazing the main focus of public lands management.

George Wuerthner is a former BLM botanist and author of 38 books. He lives in Bend.

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