Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Owyhee Canyonlands: Faux Conservation and Pork Barrel Development

In 2016, a coalition of conservation and business interests (including Portland’s Keen Footwear) tried mightily to persuade President Obama to proclaim an Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument on Bureau of Land Management holdings in Oregon’s Malheur County. Due to the timidity of the Obama administration, the national monument did not happen. A major reason is that Malheur County rhymed with Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which had just suffered an occupation by right-wing crazies. The refuge is in adjacent Harney County to the west. The Obama administration let the Malheur occupation continue far too long, emboldening gun-toting anti-government activists. Thereafter, the administration didn’t want anything to do with something named Malheur (French: “adversity, misfortune”).

Parts of the Owyhee River in Oregon are in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and/or the Oregon State Scenic Waterways System. However much of its watershed has no permanent conservation status. Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

Parts of the Owyhee River in Oregon are in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and/or the Oregon State Scenic Waterways System. However much of its watershed has no permanent conservation status. Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

In a tepid effort to express support for the conservation of the Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, introduced legislation (S.3048, 114th Congress, the Southeastern Oregon Mineral Withdrawal and Economic Preservation and Development Act) that would permanently withdraw the area from certain forms of mining and would do other things. The legislation (1) was lightweight public lands conservation (due far more to one senator than the other, but they had decided to hold hands on the Owyhee), and (2) reeked of giveaways to local economic interests at the expense of both the federal taxpayer and federal public lands. Fortunately, the bill was not enacted into law.

A new version of the bill has recently been introduced in this Congress with a new name and even worse giveaways (S.1714, 115th Congress, the Southeastern Oregon Development Act). The “conservation” in this bill is identical to that in the earlier bill. A Southeastern Oregon Mineral Withdrawal Area of ~2,065,000 acres of federal public land in Malheur County would be established. The boundary generally encompasses a large complex of BLM wilderness study areas and other BLM holdings that qualify for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System (see map). A mineral withdrawal area does not provide for comprehensive conservation of these public lands; it only protects against certain—but not all—forms of mining. No protection would be afforded against off-road vehicle use, roading, abusive livestock grazing, and the like. The purposes of the mineral withdrawal area are

 (1) to preserve the traditional uses and values of the communities in the vicinity of the withdrawal area;

(2) to protect against the harmful effects mining and oil and gas extraction could have on the unique and important resources of the region, particularly water quality, grazing, and other economic development opportunities; and

(3)(A) to support the continuation of grazing in and around the withdrawal area; and

(B) to recognize the significance of grazing in the economy, history, and culture of the County.

Because of a checkerboard of federal and private ownership, the Rome Cliffs are not encompassed in current conservation proposal for the Owyhee Canyonlands. The undeveloped private lands should be acquired for the public good from willing sellers. Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

Because of a checkerboard of federal and private ownership, the Rome Cliffs are not encompassed in current conservation proposal for the Owyhee Canyonlands. The undeveloped private lands should be acquired for the public good from willing sellers. Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

In fact, this bill would still allow geothermal leasing. A geothermal power plant is a large industrial site with roads and power lines, and every geothermal power development so far has detrimentally affected surface manifestations such as hot springs and mud pots. A geothermal power plant harms nature as surely as an oil and gas development or a gold mine development. At the scales required for development, geothermal energy is not indefinitely renewable (a.k.a. sustainable). Federal public lands in Owyhee Canyonlands are generally being cow-bombed (save for where the livestock cannot reach), and such would not only continue but be locked in by this legislation.

What minimal conservation is envisioned in the bill is now downplayed. The 2017 bill title morphed to Southeastern Oregon Development Act from the 2016 bill title Southeastern Oregon Mineral Withdrawal and Economic Preservation and Development Act. The mineral withdrawal language is now at the end of the 2017 bill, while it was at the beginning of the 2016 bill. The summary at the beginning went from mentioning conservation and development, in that order, in 2016 to development and conservation in 2017.

The 2017 economic development provisions now encompass not only Malheur County but also the counties of Harney, Lake, Grant, Klamath, Baker, and Wheeler. No commensurate increase of (faux) conservation of federal public lands in those additional counties is proposed. The economic development activities proposed in the legislation are a roster of every half-baked and hare-brained economic development fantasy imagined by any local special economic interest.

Under the bill, the secretary of agriculture would be required to grant taxpayer dollars to new water developments, not just in Malheur County but anywhere in the state. While a nod is made to water for wildlife, it’s all about livestock on public lands. Grants could even be given to upgrade water developments previously given by federal taxpayers to public lands ranchers who then failed to maintain or improve them.

An Agricultural Center for Rangeland Excellence would be located in Malheur County at federal expense to invent new ways to pretend that livestock grazing is helpful to wildlife, water quality, and water quantity. The bill would authorize a larger fire-industrial complex for Malheur County and require the BLM to construct firebreaks along roads, ostensibly to conserve sage-grouse habitat, but it’s really all about livestock grazing. Federal grants could be made for drinking and waste water systems and better broadband and cell service in Malheur County.

The secretary of transportation would have to study improving air service at Ontario (OR) Municipal Airport, with a focus on

 (A) the air service needs of the County and surrounding areas;

(B) improving access for tourism to the County;

(C) supporting firefighting staging and deployment;

(D) supporting commercial, recreational, and agricultural needs; and

(E) improving economic development opportunities in the County through transportation improvements.

The Ontario Municipal Airport is 60.7 miles from the Boise Airport in adjacent Idaho to the east. Google Maps says it takes 57 minutes to drive, but it’s almost all Interstate 84, where most go 10 MPH over the posted limit. By comparison, it takes 1 hour and 14 minutes to travel the 61.7 miles from the State Capitol Building in Salem to Portland International Airport. The Salem Municipal Airport has no commercial air service. The 2010 population of Ontario and Salem are 11,366 and 154,637 respectively. The Boise Airport has nonstop service to twenty airports as far east as Chicago, several of which are major airline hubs. Further, the Boise Airport is the home of the National Interagency Fire Center, the national headquarters of the fire-industrial complex that supports firefighting staging and deployment, just 50 miles from the Ontario Airport as the tanker flies at 200 to 300 MPH.

Federal grants would be made available in support of the Treasure Valley Intermodal Transfer Facility in Malheur County; to improve the downtown area in the cities of Adrian, Jordan Valley, Nyssa, Ontario, and Vale; for projects to improve access to waterfronts and senior transportation, to help people get to their health care appointments, to improve the road to the Owyhee Reservoir, to provide workforce training, and to support the Malheur County Poverty to Prosperity Program. The secretary of agriculture would be required to “conduct a study on the need for an economic regional commission based on the economic need in each of [seven southeast Oregon] counties.”

And I thought congressional earmarks (“government funds that are allocated by a legislator for a particular pet project”) were dead. The intense attention given to one Oregon county is disproportionate in terms of the number of people in that county compared to most other Oregon counties. Why haven’t other counties in Oregon gotten their own special legislative giveaway bills introduced?

More than 70 percent of Oregon voters favor protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands. Even in the second congressional district (mostly eastern Oregon), the support is 66 percent. Yes, an advisory vote in Malheur County was nine to one against a national monument, but let’s keep it in perspective. Let's compare and contrast Multnomah County with Malheur County. (I chose Multnomah County because it is mostly Portland, the dreaded behemoth dreaded in rural Oregon and it also starts with an "M".) In 2016, Donald Trump won Malheur County with 71.8 percent of the vote, while Hillary Clinton prevailed in Multnomah County with 76 percent of the vote. She carried Oregon with 51.7 percent to Trump’s 41.1 percent of the vote. In June of 2017, there were 14,331, 509,415, and 2,600,068 registered voters in Malheur County, Multnomah County, and all of Oregon, respectively. All the voters in Malheur County would fit into 3.2 of the 113 precincts in Multnomah County. Malheur and Multnomah counties comprise 0.55 percent and 19.59 percent respectively of the Oregon electorate. Senators Wyden and Merkley have routinely won in Multnomah County and the state as a whole, but have routinely lost in Malheur County.

The Owyhee Canyonlands in Oregon are worthy of inclusion in the National Park System, administered by the National Park Service. Now that would be local economic development! The Owyhee Canyonlands are worthy of designation by Congress as an overarching national conservation area with underlying wilderness and wild and scenic rivers where appropriate. The Owyhee Canyonlands are not deserving of a half-assed mineral withdrawal that locks in other harmful uses.