Remote Oregon Land in Spotlight as its Future is in Question
Recently, certain media reports have covered a relatively undiscovered, yet vast high desert wilderness known as the Owyhee Canyonlands that occupies the Oregon-Idaho-Nevada border. This land lies at the center of a growing controversy pitting local communities against outside interests.
At the heart of the controversy is the designation of a 2.5 million acre national monument. What is a national monument one might ask? Using the Antiquities Act, President Obama has the authority to unilaterally declare “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” on federal lands – also known as national monuments. National monuments vary in size across the U.S. For instance, the latest monument declared by the President, Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, is a three-story house in D.C. In contrast, if the Owyhee Canyonlands national monument is designated by the President it will be the largest in the country, covering more land than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Interestingly, President Obama’s Presidency alone has set aside more land than any other U.S. President – nearly 265 million acres of land and water. These monuments, like past monument designations, can serve multiple purposes, placing new restrictions on land. In this case, it is believed that the designation would place new regulations on the use and ability to access the high desert federal lands. However, like most public lands in eastern Oregon – including those under consideration for the monument – the Owyhee Canyonlands already enjoy multiple layers of federal government protection designed to preserve and enhance the areas unique features and values. A national monument designation would duplicate current regulations and bring new restrictions to the area. It is the possibility of new access restrictions and land use regulations that have area communities and family businesses concerned.
In fact, the communities near the proposed monument have demonstrated their resounding opposition to the 2.5 million acre designation. In a March special election, 90% of Malheur County voters said they did not want the Owyhee Canyonlands turned into a national monument. While the vote carries no legal weight, it sends a strong message to state and federal leaders, which could have some significance.
Congress has the ability to vote on monument designations. However, unlike national park and wilderness area designations, it is not a legal requirement. Without a vote of Congress, it limits the ability for Oregon’s elected officials to weigh in, discourages transparency, and fails to provide for any meaningful public process. All of which, could determine the long-term success of communities, businesses and achieving the monument designation’s purpose.