Letters from the West

In Boise visit, Interior Secretary Jewell talks firefighting, not national monuments

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was careful not to signal what President Barack Obama might do to protect more areas as national monuments in the two weeks or so he has left in the White House.

But she said she had not come to Boise on Tuesday to consider the 2.5 million-acre Owyhee Canyonlands in southeastern Oregon for monument status, which Oregon and national environmental groups have been pushing for. The land would include Leslie Gulch, Succor Creek and other recreation areas popular with Idahoans.

“The president will continue to be in office until Jan. 20 and it will be up to him to decide if other areas warrant protection under the Antiquities Act,” Jewell said at a news conference at Boise’s National Interagency Fire Center.

“With every monument designation President Obama has done we have worked closely with communities on the ground to make sure we know all the issues,” Jewell said. But in Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands, Jewell told the Idaho Statesman editorial board, “I am not aware we have held an open public meeting in that area.”

Jewell’s stop in Boise was part of a nationwide tour to highlight her agency’s progress on conservation, energy and tribal issues during Obama’s presidency. She was at NIFC to get briefed on the success of her secretarial order in 2015 that set a priority and strategy for protecting the millions of acres of sagebrush ecosystem across 11 states in the West.

“I think we’ve revolutionized how we manage rangeland fire in the West,” said Ron Dunton, Bureau of Land Management’s assistant director for fire and aviation at NIFC.


Jewell, who took office in April 2013, recalled the toughest days and nights of her tenure, starting with the government shutdown in October 2013. She stayed up all night negotiating with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in an attempt to keep the state’s five national parks open in peak season. The state offered to pay the costs and held off an attempt by several county sheriffs to take over the parks by force, she said.

She also cited the Bunkerville, Nev., standoff in April 2014 between armed protesters and federal law enforcement agents seeking to round up Cliven Bundy’s cattle that had been illegally grazing on federal lands for years. She and BLM officials decided to pull the agents out of the situation and release the cattle.

Had they not made that decision, Jewell said, “I am certain blood would have been spilled.”

Cliven Bundy and his sons, Ammon and Ryan, go to court in February on charges related to the standoff. The standoff in January 2016 at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters led by the Bundy sons also kept Jewell up at night, she said.

“I lose sleep when my employees are put at risk,” she said.


Obama designated two national monuments last week: Bears Ears, a massive swath of land in southeastern Utah named after a pair of twin buttes that are sacred tribal lands; and Gold Butte, northeast of Las Vegas, Nev., which includes mountains, yucca forest and desert with petroglyphs. Extensive meetings, especially in Utah, were held before Obama used the 1906 Antiquities Act that gives a president authority to protect places by proclamation.

So far, Obama has protected more than 550 million acres of public lands and waters — more than any other president.

The lack of news on the Owyhees was good news for Jordan Valley, Ore., rancher Bob Skinner, who has been one of the leading opponents of a monument designation. Malheur County voters opposed a monument with a 90 percent vote, he said.

“This has been a nightmare for a long time,” Skinner said.

Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, isn’t ready to declare defeat.

“We can’t speculate on what the Obama administration will do regarding the Owyhee in its final days,” he said. “But there is broad support from every corner of Oregon for permanently protecting this area — more than 85,000 (people) are calling for its protection — and we will continue urging our leaders to do whatever it takes to ensure that the mining and oil and gas development already clawing at the fringes of the Owyhee don’t spoil this natural treasure.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker