Guest Opinions

Two sides to the debate over Owyhee Canyonlands monument proposal

Diana Hooley
Diana Hooley

The Owyhee Canyonlands spanning Idaho and Oregon is a great place to hike if you’re a desert hound. I’m no Edward Abbey but I am attracted to desolate stretches of ancient canyons and basalt cliffs. Though crossed by a state boundary, the Canyonlands share the Owyhee River, abundant wildlife and Native American petroglyphs. Even though the Canyonlands offer relatively the same natural experience across state boundaries, when I hiked Leslie Gulch in Oregon in late spring and Big Jack Creek in Idaho earlier this summer, I had a completely different experience, and it had little to do with the scenery.

On the Idaho side, Owyhee County residents seemed OK with the Canyonlands wilderness area. At Parker Trailhead in Big Jacks Creek, my husband and I parked our Ford pickup in front of friendly and informative signage outlining the outer boundaries of wilderness. Apparently, local high school students helped the Bureau of Land Management by soldering these signs together in shop class. However, on our Oregon hiking trip, passing through the little village of Jordan Valley, it was hard to miss the large banner stretched across the outside of the school gym reading vote “No!” to the Owyhee Canyonlands monument proposal.

What makes these differences in attitudes toward conservation of public lands even more puzzling to me is that Idaho’s wilderness designation is actually more restrictive than the canyonlands monument proposed this past year for Oregon’s Malheur County. Wilderness designation generally means no motorized vehicles: no cars, trucks or motorcycles. National monument areas most often allow vehicles, roads and other transportation corridors, plus existing commerce activities including ranching, farming and mining.

So what gives? Why are Idaho’s Owyhee County residents willing to live with over 500,000 acres of wilderness in their backyards, yet on the Oregon side facing a much less restrictive proposal, there is so much resistance? One Idaho rancher told me with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, “We’re progressive!”

Others attest to a grass-roots effort called the Owyhee County Initiative that forged a land management proposal for the canyonlands wilderness long before official designation. Owyhee County commissioners and local stakeholders wanted to make sure their voices were heard in the conservation process. One former committee member told about the hard work it took to come to some kind of consensus for land management and use. Sitting at the table were BLM representatives, the Owyhee County Cattlemen’s Association, environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club, as well as representatives from the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes.

Supporters of the Oregon monument proposal have spent the past year holding town halls, taking questions and getting local input. But local input is different than local control. The specter of a president’s sweeping pen, all that it takes to designate a monument area, is threatening to many. Maybe it’s not too late to seek out a more democratic process for the Oregon monument proposal.

Diana Hooley writes from her home in Indian Cove.