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BLM proposes protecting a quarter of public wild areas in southeastern Oregon

The Bureau of Land Management is finalizing management plans for public lands that encompass sage grouse habitat.
Vince Patton
The Bureau of Land Management is finalizing management plans for public lands that encompass sage grouse habitat.

The wild sagebrush deserts of southeastern Oregon are a step closer toward additional environmental protections.

The Bureau of Land Management is updating its management plan for 3.2 million acres in Lake and Harney counties, as part of a 2010 legal settlement with the nonprofit Oregon Natural Desert Association — also called ONDA. The settlement required BLM to survey its southeast Oregon land that didn’t have wilderness protections, and then map out areas that are wild and natural enough for potential protections.

Through that mapping process, the BLM’s Lakeview District office determined that an additional 1.6 million acres had wilderness characteristics — meaning they are large, mostly natural areas with few manmade objects in sight.

Now the agency is asking the public how much of that land should have limits on offroading and mining. BLM outlined several options in a draft environmental analysis last month, all with varying levels of wildland protections, and highlighted one as its preference.

The agency’s preferred option would protect the natural characteristics of about 25% of the wild lands it mapped. Some environmental groups say that’s not enough.

ONDA program director Mark Salvo called it “a great start.”

“But are there more wilderness quality lands that should be protected as part of this planning process — as part of a balanced use of this landscape? We believe so,” he said.

Salvo is particularly concerned about protecting lands around the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Oregon, as well as an area reaching down to a wildlife refuge in Nevada.

“These are some of the most important public lands in the West remaining for wildlife that depend on sagebrush steppe,” Salvo said. Sage grouse, pronghorn and pygmy rabbits live in these areas.

Although BLM highlights a preferred option, Lakeview district manager Todd Forbes said the public should study all management options on the table.

“It’s really helpful for me to hear people look at all the alternatives and describe how those alternatives impact their use of the land,” Forbes said. “And in addition to that, is there anything that we missed that we didn’t analyze that we should have?”

BLM is hosting several public meetings about the proposed plan through July. Public comments are due Sept. 5.

Earlier this year, BLM finalized a similar addition to its management plan covering 4.6 million acres in Malheur, Grant, Harney and Baker counties, including the Owyhee Canyonlands. That update was part of another legal settlement with ONDA. During that process, BLM determined that 1.2 million acres of public land had wilderness characteristics. It ultimately added protections for about 417,000 acres.

BLM is also working on its management plan for the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southern Oregon. That monument was first designated by President Bill Clinton in 2000, and then expanded in 2017 by President Barack Obama. BLM is expected to complete that plan this fall, as reported by Jefferson Public Radio.

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting

April Ehrlich is JPR content partner at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.