Oregon, Arizona, Montana residents worry about more monument designations by President Obama | TSLN.com

Oregon, Arizona, Montana residents worry about more monument designations by President Obama

Carrie Stadheim
A rider pushes cattle through the high desert country surrounding the Owyhee Canyon. Photo by Mary Blackstock

Monuments in TSLN readership area:

Nebraska: 3, Agate Fossil Beds, Homestead, Scotts Bluff

South Dakota: 1, Jewel Cave

North Dakota, 0

Wyoming: 2, Devils Tower, Fossil Butte

Montana: 3 Little Bighorn Battlefield, Pompeys Pillar, Upper Missouri River Breaks

The rugged beauty, unusual remoteness and true wilderness of Eastern Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands is not in dispute.

The approximately 2.5 million acres that is the canyon itself, as well as the surrounding high desert country, is wild, gorgeous and should remain relatively untouched, ranchers and environmental groups alike say.

But how to accomplish it? This is where the two groups begin to head down different paths.

Andy Bentz said the argument is not about who owns the land, “the federal government does,” the discussion is centered on how the land should be managed. The fact that the land is in pristine enough condition to attract attention from environmental groups and others, is a sign that the locals are already protecting it.

“We are cattle country. If we can’t grow cattle, we are out of business. They say grazing will continue, but it won’t.” Andy Bentz, consultant for private natural resource users

While there is no official document pointing toward it, Bentz, a former Malheur County sheriff who is now a consultant for private natural resource users, fears a presidential monument designation, similar to Clinton’s declaration of the massive “Grand Staircase Escalante” as a monument as his presidential term neared its end. Bentz and others locals, like Public Lands Council Secretary/Treasurer Bob Skinner point to monuments like that one, saying that livestock grazing has all but come to an end on many large “monuments.”

“If you look at history, all are void of almost all extractive uses whether it be grazing, mining or anything,” Skinner said. “People say, ‘well if we write the statement of purpose, we’ll protect our interests.’ I don’t agree. History proves, once it’s done, they find a way to stop you. They are phasing more regulations in as time goes on and people are squeezed out.”

Skinner said the river running through the Owyee Canyon has already been declared a “Wild and Scenic” river, and livestock grazing has ceased on 50,000 acres of canyon and river. “The BLM took the tact that since the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was put into law in 1988, they thought since cattle had grazed before that, it all qualified and they didn’t need to address it. Well the environmentalists sued, the BLM got slapped down and even though the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act says grazing shall continue in its current capacity, they (cattle) are all out of there.”

Jordan Valley, Oregon, rancher Richard Eiguren worries that grazing restrictions will lead to added fire danger.

Without managed grazing, “it would just grow into a massive fire material that would just burn,” he said. “We have a lot of lightning in the summer and we have a lot of grass growing everywhere. It would just burn every other year or so. There is nothing else that could happen. It (a designation) wouldn’t improve anything.”

Eiguren says the country is gorgeous but much of it is rough and inaccessible, even horseback. “It’s out in the middle of the desert, who in the hell wants to be there anyway? It’s nice to drive out there for a day and then be done.”

Skinner agrees that while the region is beautiful it is not park-like. Inroads don’t exist. “This is the wildest, biggest, most remote area in U.S. – no question, but you can’t get across it, no vehicle can cross it.” The pilot of a small plane, Skinner added, “we can fly out there 150 miles an hour for three hours and never see a human being.

Visitors to the area are often unprepared for the vastness of the area, and struggle with extreme hot or cold weather, no cell coverage and no services. “If the public starts coming in, in droves, our remoteness will change. That will ruin it as far as I’m concerned.”

Bentz’s concern is not only for the protection of the land, but the preservation of the people. Skinner agrees. Malheur County, he says, is the largest cattle-producing county in the state, and beef cattle is the single largest ag commodity in the state. “We are cattle country. If we can’t grow cattle, we are out of business. “They say grazing will continue, but it won’t.”

Skinner, whose BLM lease would be taken in by the proposed monument boundary, said that in the proposal, all state and private land has been parceled out.

Bentz says Keen Footwear and the Oregon National Desert Association (ONDA) have led the rally for added levels of government bureaucratic oversight of the canyonlands.

Keen’s website, Keenfootwear.com, contains a link to a petition urging support for five new national monuments including the Owhyee Canyonlands. The others are: Birthplace of Rivers, West Virginia; Boulder-White Clouds, Central Idaho; Gold Butte, Southern Nevada; and Mojave Trails, Southern California, which President Obama named a national monument earlier this month, along with Castle Mountains, also of California.

According to an official news release, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack joined Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in applauding the recent action in California.

“The new monuments, located in San Bernardino and Riverside counties about one hour from the Los Angeles metropolitan area and one hour from the Las Vegas metropolitan area, protect approximately 1.8 million acres of spectacular landscapes, fragile wildlife habitat, unique historic resources, and important cultural sites,” said the release.

One of the main goals of ONDA, according to their website, is “protecting wild places in Oregon’s high desert.” The group has not officially called for a monument designation, but instead is urging congress to permanently set the area aside, using a combination of National Conservation Area, Wilderness, and Wild & Scenic River designations. ONDA proposes 2,579,032 acres of National Conservation Area, with just over 2 million acres within that being designated Wilderness. Unlike a presidential Monument Designation using the Antiquities Act, the official ONDA proposal would require congressional action.

“When your favorite place is protected as wilderness, you know that you will be able to return year after year, season after season, to the same landscape. You will never encounter a “no trespassing” sign, because wilderness belongs to all Americans to enjoy. In a world of change and growth, wilderness is a constant in our lives that remains there for us when we need it,” the ONDA website says.

Their website claims that the permanent “protections” they seek will:

• Safeguard its deep, red-rock canyons, rolling plains, wild rivers and ample recreational opportunities for future generations

• Protect the area’s fascinating geology, rich ancient history, healthy wildlife habitat and unique ecology

• Prevent extractive uses that would permanently damage these pristine places

• Ensure activities like fishing, boating, hunting and hiking would continue, forever

• Allow working farms and ranches to continue to operate.

But a 2011 Environmental Trends article, The Economic Costs of Wilderness, researched and written by Utah State University School of Business professors says that Wilderness Designations can be expected to harm the local economy by limiting use of the land including grazing.

“Some Wilderness can have positive economic impacts but our findings indicate that this is not the general rule…Wilderness negatively impacts local economic conditions…the Wilderness designation is significantly associated with lower per capita income, lower total payroll and lower tax receipts in counties.”

The difference between how a monument designation or Wilderness designation would affect locals, particularly ranchers, is unknown, and will depend on future management decisions and court actions. Both designations can allow livestock grazing but historically have phased it and other natural resource uses out, sometimes due to restrictions like “no motorized travel” that make livestock management difficult.

Grazing is expressly allowed in Wilderness Areas, but administrators may make “reasonable regulations” including the reduction of grazing to improve range conditions,” the Environmental Trends paper said.

Bentz says there is no support outside of the “environmental” movement to lock up Owyhee Canyonlands.

“We want to stop this because we want to be able to survive and stay here. Everything we do in the rural West is based on interaction, interface from the landlord federal government.”

“The people living on the land are more than capable of managing it to where fire dangers are reduced, invasive species are reduced, riparian areas are improved, quality and quantity of forage for wildlife like the sage hen and recreation are all maintained and improved. What can’t go on if we are going to survive is the environmental groups using the court system to override land management decisions made by agencies. That has them crippled and the land suffers.” Bentz said the communities, in turn, suffer, getting poorer and smaller.

“It takes more of other people’s tax dollars to pay for what these people could and should be paying for themselves.”

Until the courts get out of the business of managing land, good operators will go unrewarded and bad operators will go unpunished, Bentz said. Because of the barrage of lawsuits filed by special interest groups, land management decisions are often not made or not enforced. “Once you go to court, nothing gets done. The land suffers for it,” he said.

Smart use of natural resources allows communities to thrive. “A community can’t be sustainable if there are no jobs or future. Without people here, nobody controls the medusa head cheat grass or the juniper, nobody puts out fires.”

Bentz doesn’t blame the local federal land managers and he said to “go and yell” at the local BLM staff makes as much sense as yelling at a fireman when one’s house is burning. “This is a fight based on the environmental community trying to take absolute control for only their interests, not for multiple use, not for everyone in the United States.”

ONDA is considered a radical group by Bentz and many agriculturists in the northwest. The group pushed for – and achieved – a 100,000 acre “cow free” wilderness area on the Steens Mountain, where the Hammond family ranches. Eventually, because of pressure from ONDA, other special interest groups and the Bureau of Land Management, all of the ranchers on the top of the mountain traded their BLM permits and private land for BLM land on the valley floor. The Hammond family, including Steven and Dwight who were imprisoned earlier this year for burning around 140 acres of BLM land in two different fires, are the “last holdouts” next to the cow-free wilderness, said rancher and former BLM range technician and watershed specialist, Erin Maupin. ONDA and the BLM targeted the ranching families who left, and continues to target the Hammonds, with hopes of gaining access to their private land and BLM leases, she believes.

Maupin, who, at one time ranched next to the Hammond family, said that an ONDA representative asked her what it would take for her family to relinquish their BLM permit on the Steens Mountain.

“We tried to work with ONDA and the refuge (Malheur National Wildlife Refuge),” she recalls. She and her husband piped water to their cattle because ONDA complained that their cattle were trampling streams, but the group wasn’t satisfied and continued to file complaints until the Maupins gave in. “That’s when I decided that you can’t negotiate with terrorists,” she recalls, and the family gave up the permit.

The Public Lands Council is concerned on a large scale. “This president has misused and abused his executive power more than any of his predecessors in an attempt to distract from his true environmental legacy which will be one of mismanagement and undue economic hardship in rural communities,” said Brenda Richards, Public Lands Council President, in an official statement. With just his signature, President Obama has now set aside 22 national monuments, totaling 265 million acres, more than any other president.

Montanans are worried, too. First Vice president of the Montana Association of Counties, Todd Devlin, said county commissioners and ranchers are concerned that the president is gearing up for a designation in their state. The Terry, Montana, rancher said the BLM in his state is in the process of re-inventorying their landholdings, which could be a pre-cursor to a presidential monument designation. “There is no other reason to catalog it again.”

The Public Lands Council fears that more monument designations are coming. A “rash” of last-minute designations totaling nearly 10 million acres in states like Oregon, Arizona and Utah is expected before he leaves office, they said.

Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, on Feb. 18, along with 24 co-signers, sent President Obama a letter asking him not to unilaterally designate 1.7 million acres in the Grand Canyon Watershed as a National Monument. The watershed lies just outside of Grand Canyon National Park.

“National monument designations under the Antiquities Act typically have significant consequences that negatively affect grazing rights, water rights, wildfire prevention, and other land management activities. These declarations also result in some of the most restrictive land-use regulations possible and also greatly impact hunting, fishing, OHV, and other recreational activities,” explained a member of Gosar’s staff.

The proposal would nearly double the amount of acreage designated as national monuments in his state, Gosar said.

Arizona’s Game and Fish Commissioner, Kurt Davis, in September of 2015, wrote an opinion piece criticizing the Sierra Club and other groups for pushing another monument designation in his state. The National Park Service, he said, has a maintenance deficit of $11.5 billion and the Grand Canyon National Park accounts for $329 million of it.

“Those same groups that don’t seem to care about fiscal responsibility also would have you believe that better ‘conservation’ is right around the corner with the creation of a national monument. That’s flat-out wrong,” he says.”

He goes on, “Conservation is difficult work. Unfortunately, groups like the Center for Biological Diversity would rather pursue their idea of conservation in courtrooms through their filing of endless lawsuits – and have no problem spending your tax dollars to do it – while the Arizona Game and Fish Department puts sound, science-based management and conservation practices to work every day for more than 800 species.

The true core of conservation has been, and will continue to be, the sportsmen and sportswomen who fund the majority of conservation efforts; the ranching families who have pioneered and maintained an important presence in the heart of our state’s treasured landscapes; the rural community members who have historically safeguarded Arizona’s unique places; and Game and Fish, which has diligently managed our wildlife in a balanced fashion.”

On Feb. 2, the Senate failed to approve an amendment introduced by Republican Senator from Utah, Mike Lee, that would have required presidential monument designations to expire within three years if Congress and the state in which the monument was located didn’t pass resolutions supporting the move.

In a near party-line vote of 47-48, four Republican Senators joined Democrats in opposing the bill.

Last November, Congressman Gosar introduced similar legislation, H.R. 3946, that would incorporate input from local stakeholders and block unilateral designations by any president. A number of state and regional ag organizations have pledged support for the bill that claims 28 co-sponsors but it has not been taken up by the Subcommittee on Federal Lands, where it was referred.