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Senators propose national monument status for area near Oregon’s Painted Hills

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Jim Davis
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Oregon Natural Desert Association
Snow dusts Sutton Mountain near Mitchell, Ore., in an undated file photo.

After previous attempts to create a federal wilderness at Sutton Mountain fizzled, Oregon’s U.S. senators have proposed a national monument instead.

Oregon’s U.S. senators have proposed a new national monument at Sutton Mountain near Central Oregon’s Painted Hills.

Sutton Mountain stands in the backdrop of the iconic view overlooking the autumnal hues of the Painted Hills. The hills themselves are already featured as one of three distinct units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

Oregon Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden on Wednesday announced legislation to protect an even larger area surrounding the Painted Hills as part of a new Sutton Mountain National Monument.

“With this legislation, we’ll make sure the public will be able to experience some of Oregon’s most incredible landmarks for generations to come, while also creating jobs and economic opportunities in the county right now,” Merkley said in a press release.

The 66,000-acre monument would include Sutton Mountain itself along with several popular recreation sites like Pats Cabin, Sand Mountain and Priest Hole.

A map of the proposed Sutton Mountain National Monument in Central Oregon.
Courtesy of Sen. Jeff Merkley's office /
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A map of the proposed Sutton Mountain National Monument in Central Oregon.


The area has long been a target for conservation. Thousands of acres are already protected as Wilderness Study Areas, which are places identified by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as having wilderness characteristics eligible for further protection.

The Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association has long supported additional safeguards for Sutton Mountain. The region provides habitat for a wide array of plant and animal life, including herds of pronghorn, elk and mule deer.

“Many folks don’t know what it’s named or what it’s all about,” said ONDA executive director Ryan Houston, “but it’s a pretty unique feature out there and it’s a pretty wonderful place to explore.”

Past attempts to create a federal wilderness at Sutton Mountain in 2015 and 2019 have died in Congress. This latest effort takes a different approach by proposing it as a national monument.

A monument designation at Sutton Mountain would block future mining claims within the monument boundary. It would also require a management plan to reduce fire risk and promote recreational access, among other priorities. Ranchers would be able to continue grazing livestock within the monument.

According to Merkley’s press release, the proposal has the support of several conservation groups as well as the city of Mitchell, which has seen economic benefits from Painted Hills tourism and visiting cyclists.

Oregon has four national monuments: the John Day Fossil Beds, Oregon Caves, Newberry National Volcanic Monument and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Bradley W. Parks