"Oregon's Grand Canyon" Was Going To Be a National Monument. The Bundys Killed It.

Federal Protection for Owyhee Canyonlands becomes collateral damage of the Malheur occupation.

The cliffs along the Owyhee River in this state's southeastern corner have been called "Oregon's Grand Canyon."

The area is home to one the largest bands of California bighorn sheep in the country, herds of antelope, and 200 other species. Located 450 miles from Portland, it's the mythical deserted West, free from fast-food joints, strip malls and, in most places, cellphone service.

And thanks to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by anti-government militants led by Ammon Bundy, the Owyhee Canyonlands is a long way from the federal protection environmentalists hoped President Barack Obama would grant as part of his legacy.

Environmentalists pushed for Obama to declare 2.5 million acres in the Owhyee Canyonlands as Oregon's fifth national monument.

"The Owyhee was on the short list a year ago," says Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild. "There were no good, credible arguments as to why it wouldn't happen."

Now people familiar with the process say the proposed Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument is all but dead—a victim of the Malheur occupation, which changed the political climate, spooking federal bureaucrats and Oregon's congressional delegation.

"It definitely had an impact," says Doug Moore, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. "How could it not? It's in the same region you had a hostile takeover of federal lands."

The federal Department of the Interior, the agency coordinating the monument process, didn't respond to a request for comment. But those involved in the monument process say the feds lost their nerve for further conflict in Oregon.

"Prior to the occupation, I felt pretty confident that the Owyhee would be protected," says John Sterling, executive director of the Conservation Alliance. "After the occupation, the path forward became a lot trickier."

A broad coalition of conservation and recreation groups pushed for Obama to permanently protect the vast patchwork of federally owned property known as the Owyhee Canyonlands. (Most of the land is in Malheur County, but it doesn't include the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.)

"Timber companies, ranchers and other private property owners are closing off access to their lands," says Bob Rees, executive director of Northwest Steelheaders. "Public lands are becoming the real endangered species, so to speak. Preserving and protecting them is paramount."

Last year, a coalition led by the Oregon Natural Desert Association and Portland-based Keen Footwear launched a campaign to put pressure on the White House to declare the Owyhee a national monument. ONDA worked with local officials and retained Josh Kardon, former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Keen launched a national campaign called "Live Monumental," highlighting the Owyhee and four other proposed monuments.

The timing was good because a Democratic president would soon be leaving office. Federal law allows presidents to establish national monuments without congressional approval. Such designations are usually controversial, so presidents traditionally leave them until the end of their terms. There are 162 national monuments, but of the past five Republican presidents, only George W. Bush declared even one new monument.

As early as 2010, according to an op-ed that former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt wrote in The Oregonian, the Owyhee was shortlisted for monument status.

There was plenty of opposition, including local residents, ranchers concerned about preserving grazing rights, and companies interested in exploiting the region's mineral wealth.

In 2015, a bill sponsored by state Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario), who represents Malheur County, ordered the state to assess what lay beneath the region's surface. The answer came this September: commercial deposits of gold, silver, uranium and other less-coveted minerals.

What was nonetheless shaping up as a major victory for conservation forces turned into a blowout loss when Ammon Bundy and his followers moved into the Malheur refuge on Jan. 2, staying through Feb. 11.

While the Bundys seized federal property, opponents of federal protection for the land also took action.

On Jan. 29, they incorporated the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition and, a week later, hired Gallatin Public Affairs in Portland to mount a counteroffensive against the monument designation. (It is unclear where the stewardship's money came from.)

Gallatin built a slick website, lined Interstate 5 with campaign signs, and began a media blitz declaring there should be no monument without a vote of Congress.

Gallatin's Ryan Frank, a spokesman for the coalition, says the group had no association with or sympathy for the Malheur occupiers, whom he calls "out-of-town extremists."

But Frank acknowledges the occupation achieved the result opponents of the monument wanted.

"It was a miserable, gut-wrenching event for the region," Frank says of the occupation, "but in an odd way, yes, our client benefits from it."

Most people involved in the monument process say that by the time David Fry, the last occupier, left the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Feb. 11, opponents of the monument had won.

And the Oregon congressional delegation, despite comprising six Democrats and just one Republican, has accepted the result the Bundys thrust upon them.

Of those who've taken an active interest, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) sides with monument opponents, while Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) is the strongest supporter.

Sens. Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, introduced a halfhearted bill this summer, aimed at preventing mineral extraction in the Owyhee basin. Protective legislation is the first step in the monument process. When it fails, the president steps in.

But the Wyden-Merkley bill was far less than advocates hoped for before the Malheur occupation—and stood in marked contrast to the scorched-earth tactics of another Westerner, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

In 2013, Reid proposed far stronger legislation aimed at protecting Gold Butte, a piece of land a rifle shot away from Cliven Bundy's ranch near Bunkerville, Nev. When the legislation went nowhere, Reid promised this August that Gold Butte would be declared a national monument before year's end, adding that the only reason it hadn't happened already is that "Republicans hate public lands."

"Having Reid say, 'Goddamn it, I support declaring a new monument,' makes a big difference," says Pedery.

Of course, Reid is the Senate's senior-most Democrat, and he's retiring this year, so he can afford to be bold.

Merkley spokeswoman Martina McLennan says her boss wants to see future protections for the Owyhee "through collaborative efforts that consider local input."

Hank Stern, a Wyden spokesman, says Wyden did his part by introducing legislation.

"Monuments are created by the executive branch," Stern says, "and Sen. Wyden has communicated clearly to this administration the views of Oregonians supporting and opposing the idea."

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