Oregon Owyhee Wilderness Legislation Benefits Ranchers

North Fork Owyhee River Oregon

Senator Wyden and Senator 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 to 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.

It is important to understand that this legislation was created in reaction to a 2.5-million-acre national monument proposal that conservationists were advocating. To head off the creation of a national monument, the local livestock industry came up with its own proposal. While a few concessions were made to create new wilderness areas, the overall legislative goals are to enshrine ranching as the primary use of these public lands.

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. This ignores the large body of scientific documentation of the numerous ecological impacts that are attributed to livestock production.

For instance, livestock production is the single greatest source of species endangerment of species in the West including numerous fish, amphibians, birds and mammals, and the well known sage grouse.

Livestock is the reason that the majority of riparian areas (green areas along waterway) are impaired and not functioning. These riparian areas are used by 70-80% of all wildlife species at some time in their life cycle, so their loss or degradation has serious ecological consequences.

Livestock is the greatest source of water pollution on federal lands.

Livestock grazing is the single biggest factor in the spread of weeds, and the establishment of cheatgrass, an exotic annual that is prone to fires.

Livestock is the reason we are killing native wildlife like coyotes and wolves—on public lands.

Livestock hay production is the reason many rivers are annually dewatered much to the detriment of our fisheries and aquatic ecosystem.

Most ecologists would tell you that eliminating livestock production on these federal lands would do far more for their ecological health than any benefit from wilderness designation.

Other questionable assumptions enshrined in the legislation is the idea that livestock grazing can reduce or eliminate large wildfires (false). That water developments, water troughs, water pipelines, and other associated range “developments” will reduce habitat fragmentation (false).

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).

The CEO group would consist of 13 people – 6 ranchers, 1 Burns Paiute representative, and 6 from other interests, including 2 who must reside in Malheur County almost ensuring local control of the public’s property.

Worse, under MCEOA, a majority of the advisory group members would constitute a quorum, but only if the number of rancher-representatives equals or exceeds the number of non-ranchers. Talk about a stacked deck!

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 primary purpose of public lands management.

As someone who worked as a biologist for the BLM, I can assure you that the proposed rancher advisory group will control public land decisions. Any BLM manager who fails to defer to the advisory board risks being “reassigned.”

Why should ranchers and Malheur County residents have the majority positions on any advisory group? These are federal lands that belong to all Americans, not just the residents of Malheur County. Why do we need an “Advisory” committee to monitor and oversee grazing on public lands? Isn’t that what we are paying the Bureau of Land Management employees to do? Isn’t that what public review and public involvement in the NEPA process is supposed to support?

There are many unquestioned assertions in the legislation—typically made to promote the livestock industry. For instance, the legislation proclaims that livestock grazing contributes to a significant portion of the economic well-being of Malheur County.

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

Another unquestioned assumption is the premise that livestock is a “tool” to improve the ecological health of the land.” A hammer is a tool as well, but if it is used to swat mosquitoes on your face, your face will suffer.


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 interfirm wilderness protection some 209,521 acres of existing WSA.

While the designation of more than 1.1 million acres is significant, the loss of any WSAs would permit on-going range developments, juniper and sagebrush removal and other cow-friendly management to degrade the ecological integrity of these lands.

MCEOA allows for the Interior Secretary to undertake “any activities necessary for control of fire, insect, and disease”.

Under such a provision questionable management policy would be allowed like vegetation “treatments” that mow and burn sage communities, herbicide spraying, juniper cutting, and other projects normally considered inconsistent with wilderness policies.


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). Under current regulations the public can participate at many stages in any federal proposal, however, MCEOA significantly reduces public participation in federal land management decisions (on our lands) by limiting public participation to Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS). This review of more than 4.5 million acres will guide management for the area. After the PEIS is completed, there will be no further opportunities for NEPA public involvement at the site-specific level.


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 basically pays a rancher to give up grazing privileges. In other words, it is a way to allow a rancher to retire, buy more private property for their operation, or pass on a sizeable sum of money to heirs.

Given that livestock grazing jeopardizes water quality, wildlife, recreation, wilderness, native vegetation, soil, biocrusts, and promotes things like cheatgrass, predator killing, and other assorted public lands abused, the fact this legislation contains no provision for grazing permit buyout is yet another example of the pro-livestock bias.

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.

It is hoped that both Senator Wyden and Merkley will revamp this legislation or abandon it.


  1. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    No calling out ONDA,Kerr, Rait, Pew, or industrial rec, just ranchers.

    Same old, same old from GW and the crew.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      So Chris, taking a typical “shot across the bow” ? (abbreviating) how bout defining those you listed?

      I’ve lived in “ranching” country (Montana) for a few decades and I can assure you its “full steam ahead” when it comes to devastating native wildlife, their habitat in the name of ranching interests when bigger profits are the name of the game.

      “While the designation of more than 1.1 million acres is significant, the loss of any WSAs would permit on-going range developments, juniper and sagebrush removal and other cow-friendly management to degrade the ecological integrity of these lands”

      1. Hiker Avatar

        Thanks Nancy, I wasn’t sure how to respond to Chris. It seems to me that at least George is calling out someone, and ranchers do a lot of damage.

  2. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    GW and I have a history.

    Kerr & Rait sold our the HDPA. This is what they got in return.

    The same is true for mid-squad enviros and industrial rec industry.

    I posted this in this forum last Nov.

    The Wyden/Merkley Owyhee Bill is not good:


    * One of the first things in the entire bill is a definition of Active Management.

    * It codifies a collaborative group of decisionmakers dominated by ranchers (6 of 13) and gives 6 spots to a combination of conservation orgs & rec interests, equating the two. 8 of 13 must reside in the area, ceeding to local control & rendering BLM DMs/Field Mgrs almost moot.

    * Exempts this group from the Federal Committee Advisory Act.

    * Codifies the area an ‘active/adaptive management’ laboratory/model of “fire science” (no matter the OG Juni; soon needed to protect fire starting recreationists).

    * Speaks to carrying capacities for cattle but not humans, to Suspended AUMs and restoring them.), just like recent Emery County/Swell bill.

    * Vale BLM gets extra FTE & funding. $37 million / year for 10 years; $7M of it / year to Burns Paiute. Total cost: $148 million.

    * All proposed wilderness are those proposed by Rait & Pew, and allow grazing.


    * Mechanical treatment (chainsaws;dozers) are authorized for ‘first responders’ and chemicals are allowed for invasive species in wilderness & scenic river corridor.

    * Road setbacks (clearing) of 300′ from centerline.

    * Directs 3 loop roads be developed along with “Travel Oregon,” codifying motor based industrial tourism, later a management plan likely to include formal campgrounds. (https://traveloregon.com/) The collection of fees/tolls is authorized. Travel Oregon is directed to develop a marketing plan.

    1. don smith Avatar
      don smith

      Thanks Chris for you’re comments.

      A similar ‘insider’ deal was struck in wilderness designation on the Idaho side of the Owyhee. As in Oregon, conservation activist and organizations not admitted to the process were preempted as outsiders – only able to challenge from a distance.

      1. Jim Hammett Avatar
        Jim Hammett

        The problems I see with the proposal:
        1. The money is a pipe-dream. With all the competing needs, it will never be appropriated. This legislation would only authorize the expenditure. Just words.

        2. Meanwhile, a committee would make “recommendations” regarding adaptive management — like increasing AUMs in good years. (Once increased, not likely decreased). This committee is stacked with ranchers and supporters.

        3. Without any data (because no money) adaptive management would be based more on political considerations than biological ones.

        4. These wilderness areas all have fences, reservoirs, pipelines, spring developments, troughs, etc. for cattle. These will continue to be maintained using motorized equipment. I think this will degrade the entire wilderness preservation system as it will stand as a model.

        5. There is no provision for buy-outs or other termination of grazing permits. So the ultimate long term ecological stressor will remain forever.

  3. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    Ironically the BLM hired a well known political science professor (Phillip Foss) in 1964-65 and again in 1969 to study the effects that grazing committees had on decision making. Foss indicated the such committees were often dominated/controlled by the same ranchers whose actions were supposed to be regulated by BLM. Obviously not much has changed. The land and the planet are in worse shape than ever.

    The white, Anglo-centric, capitalistic, utilitarian sub-culture still thinks in terms of the “wild west”, the superiority of their brand of people ,horses and cows over the land and wildlife (especially predators and competing herbivores) and the suppression of the Native American cultural heritage which claims a variety of spiritual values in “wild” animals such as the Bison which are routinely killed for getting out of their little “boxes”.

    The government and many of those NGO’s out there refuse to draw a line in the sand and say NO MORE damage to federally managed lands. They continue with carving up our public lands into subdivisions with fancy names and creating nebulous ,wordy planning documents which have been turned out in such quantity that they would sink the Bismark. These bureaucratic monsters care about their colorful, procedural programs more than the land vegetation/animal complex itself. As long as they think that way the planet will continue to die, little by little, and our wildlife heritage will consist of park pigeons, starlings, Norway rats and cockroaches and the only turkeys left will be those in congress.

  4. Alan Gregory Avatar
    Alan Gregory

    Been a long time since I last read this blog: A traumatic brain injury and moves to Vermont from Pennsylvania and then on to Idaho, where I grew up before a career in the Air Force. I am, I am proud to say,an advocate of getting cows off our public lands. Here is a letter I wrote several months ago.
    The clearing, earlier this year, of juniper trees from public lands in Owyhee County was billed as an effort to restore habitat for Greater Sage-Grouse.
    Nope. It was instead all about fostering the growth of grasses for foraging by cattle – a non-native critter whose grazing on public lands has long been subsidized by the taxpayers. The cutting and junking of juniper trees – all of them native to the northern reach of the Great Basin Desert – was also subsidized by us taxpaying folks.
    One positive step toward helping the population of this rapidly dwindling bird (Centrocercus urophasianus) would be the removal of cows from public lands looked after by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.
    The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states: “Habitat fragmentation and development have caused severe declines for this spectacular bird.”
    Undisturbed, high-quality habitat (which includes sagebrush) is imperative for sage-grouse. Cutting down junipers to create grassland for cows is not a winning strategy.
    Alan C. Gregory
    Mountain Home

  5. Karl Findling Avatar

    Thanks for a lively debate here–no, not a debate!
    I grew-up, just north of the Owyhee, Boise, and Snake Rivers happy meeting place. I had family help build a dam (1931), and on the other side of the family, farm a forty-acre reach, for 60 years, below that dam.
    As I get older, I agree with many here, that the heavily subsidized cowboy industry has to stop trashing our public lands, and especially the 4.5 million acres of the Vale district.
    I just wished there was a way for the other 340 million Americans to weigh-in on this issue, instead of few in Malheur County that think they own the land–oh yeah, they do, equally with the other 340 million Americans, but somehow feel their voice is more important and should be amplified–where as western Idahoans’ are the largest user-group that impact the Owyhee region, have no stake in the claim! Only Oregonian’s, and not just Oregonian’s, but primarily Malheur Co. residents get to tell the BLM how to manage the land?!–pathetic!
    These Quid Pro Quo Wildernesses are becoming too common out West.

  6. Alan Gregory Avatar
    Alan Gregory

    That would be the Swan Falls Dam? Been a few years since I last got down there. It’s not far from my home in Mountain Home. In any case, I am a frequent visitor to the Owyhees southeast of Grand View (Mud Flat Road; a.k.a. the Owyhee Uplands Backcountry Byway). Anecdotes don’t hold much data from a scientific standpoint, but my trip journals are loaded with them. Like finding a fresh cowpie dropped smack-dab on a flowering Sulphur Buckwheat plant last spring, and watching a fat bovine drop crap into Poison Creek as its fellow cows destroyed the riparian zone. And so it goes. I say again: Let’s get the cows off the public lands.


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George Wuerthner