Western Watersheds Project’s statement on new Wilderness bill in Malheur County

For Immediate Release: November 14, 2019

Contact: Scott Lake, Western Watersheds Project,  (208) 429-1679; scott@westernwatersheds.org


Proposed Malheur legislation sacrifices land heath, elevates livestock above other land uses


BURNS, Ore. – On November 7th, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced legislation that prioritizes economic development in Malheur County while also designating some public lands as wilderness. Conservationists were swift to criticize the proposal.

“This bill calls for continuing and expanding the leading cause of environmental degradation in the Owyhee River canyonlands: domestic livestock grazing,” said Scott Lake, Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project. “Overgrazing has left the area at extreme risk from invasive weeds, loss of biodiversity, and streamside habitat destruction. This bill does nothing to address the root cause of these problems, and instead actively promotes commercial uses that have already done so much damage to the land.”

The legislation, called the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act, prioritizes “support[ing] and grow[ing] local communities and economies,” “protect[ing] western traditions,” and, most troublingly, “maintain[ing] grazing on federal land.”  However, the total economic contribution of livestock, even in rural Malheur County, is relatively insignificant. Farm income makes up only 3.5% of the total income in Malheur County, and only about 40% of the farms have any connection with the livestock industry.

The Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act wrongly asserts that livestock are a beneficial tool for landscape restoration when, in fact, the best available science shows the opposite is true. The arid sage-steppe of southeastern Oregon evolved without heavy grazing pressure, and livestock grazing has been linked to the proliferation of nonnative species and the decline of native wildlife. Conversely, removal of livestock has been shown to dramatically improve soil conditions, vegetation, watershed health, and water quality.

Livestock encourage the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species by breaking down the two main defenses against invasion—native perennial grasses and biological soil crusts. Recovery from such impacts can take decades. In the meantime, the land remains vulnerable to invasion by cheatgrass and other annual grasses that destroy habitat and increase wildfire risk.  Restoration of degraded lands is possible, but only if they are adequately protected from livestock.

Only 6% public land in the BLM Vale Resource Area meets basic land health standards, while 94% of the BLM acres assessed are failing to meet standards because of current livestock grazing practices. What’s more, BLM has never even checked more than 60% of grazing leases in the area to see if they were meeting or failing land health standards. The proposed legislation, however, would put the livestock industry squarely at the center of land management decisions by creating a rancher-dominated advisory council to develop and implement public lands policy.

“Even with federal regulations fully in place, the ranchers of southeastern Oregon have a troubling and abysmal record of failing to safeguard the health of public lands,” said Lake. “These particular public lands are perhaps the last place that Congress should put under the management of the livestock industry, yet that’s exactly what this legislation does.”

The bill also relaxes BLM’s legal obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This bedrock law requires federal agencies to look before they leap, consider environmentally responsible alternatives, and seek and respond to public input. Under the proposed legislation, the public would only be able to weigh in on BLM proposals once every ten years, and the bill excuses BLM from NEPA’s requirement to conduct a thorough, project-specific environmental analysis.

“All across the West, the livestock industry is proposing schemes to cut down woodlands, plant invasive forage plants, and fragment native wildlife habitat to increase the production of forage for domestic cattle and sheep,” said Lake. “We need more public scrutiny to rein in these types of projects, not less.”

The bill covers the ancestral lands of the Burns Paiute Tribe.







  1. Dale Houston Avatar
    Dale Houston

    Sadly, the economic obsession of cattle ranchers are having a devastating impact on a balance environment that has long term benefits. We somehow need a louder voice to convey the science behind a balance environment.

  2. Oakley Taylor Avatar
    Oakley Taylor

    I am a public land owner and have been a registered voter for 34 years in the state of Oregon. The public land belongs to the citizens of this country, not these ranchers that should not be getting “free rent” by letting their livestock graze freely at the expense of tax payers. It’s not fair and this practice must be monitored much more closely. This practice has to stop! Why should they get a free ride on a practice of ranching where they are making profits? This situation will continue to escalate if nothing is done to combat this.

  3. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    The bills number is S. 2828. It is 71 pages long. It essentially sanctions a farming operation on public land. It mentions specifically the use of grazing-“as a tool to improve the ecological health of the federal land”. And also the use of mechanical and chemical tools to do the same.

    But as Chief Joseph said “look twice at two faced men”. The bill is obviously not written by ecologically minded people, otherwise they would know the folly of constantly setting back succession for short term gain. Under this plan/legislation as well as others currently being promoted, the land vegetation complex will never heal. That is really the idea. They want to keep the land in a state where something has to be done to it-not to heal the land but to promote capitalism.

    We, the tax payers, already make up the difference for the 95% discount grazing lessee’s get and who knows how many millions of tax dollars will be poured into S.2828. Can’t keep this up forever without an economic failure (the government is passing the ranchers failure on to us) and with the continued use of herbicides like glyphosate we could be looking at a biological/economic catastrophe of “biblical proportions”.

  4. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    I am thinking that the legislative target list should include the Taylor Grazing Act, the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978 and the Kuchel Act of 1964. What do we have to lose at this point?

    The Taylor Grazing Act should specify a realistic grazing fee like $11.00 per AUM instead of $1.35. The Public Rangelands Improvement Act makes the base rate used in calculating range grazing fees as only $1.23. This is pure economic folly. It should be around $7.50. And the Kuchel Act; perhaps well meaning in the 1960’s but it essentially made a corporate farm out of the Lower Klamath-Tule Lake national wildlife refuge. The whole place smells like fertilizer and pesticide and the dust that rises from the farming operation coats the neighboring Lava Beds National Monument, giving it the grey aura of death.

    Perhaps as Alduous Huxley said “that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach”.

  5. Rob Avatar

    Thanks for the article. What is best course of action to fight this? I assume we contact out senators to oppose it. Anything beyond that we can/should do?

    1. Greta Anderson Avatar
      Greta Anderson

      Stay tuned. The bill might get a hearing soon, and then we’ll know more if it has legs and how to block it from moving.

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