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Earl Blumenauer To Obama: Designate Owyhee National Monument

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has officially asked President Obama to designate a remote area in southeastern Oregon as a national monument.

Blumenauer is the only member of Oregon’s Congressional delegation to openly ask Obama to create an Owyhee National Monument.

Blumenauer highlighted the Owyhee’s outdoor recreation opportunities and wildlife habitat, and suggested that protection could lead to economic growth in Malheur County. Conservationists cheered Blumenauer’s support for Owyhee protections.

“I think it’s a pretty important moment in time," said David Moryc with the conservation organization American Rivers. "Rep. Blumenauer’s letter recognizes the outstanding value and importance of protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands."

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have introduced legislation that would protect the high desert and red rock canyon area from future mining operations. Although Merkley said in March that he wasn't opposed to an Owyhee National Monument, he said at a Harney County forum in May that the president shouldn't pursue it without fully addressing community concerns. Last spring, an overwhelming majority of Malheur County voters rejected the idea of a monument in an advisory vote.

"The families of Malheur County are disappointed that a Congressman from Portland would suggest to the President that the opinions and thoughts of the local residents shouldn’t be listened to," said Ryan Frank, spokesman for the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Council, a coalition that opposes a monument.

Frank said many local residents are concerned that the federal designation could limit access for cattle grazing.

"Ranching is an important driver of the Oregon economy," said Frank. "By continuing to restrict access to public lands in this area, we believe it's going to decimate the livelihoods and economy of this area."

But conservationists emphasize that existing roads and access points can remain open for ranchers, hunters, or hikers, even under a national monument designation. They want the area protected from future developments like mining, or oil and gas drilling.

"It's really an unparalleled desert landscape," said David Moryc, with American Rivers. "It's a landscape, given its remoteness and aridness, that we've got to be really careful to protect because a large landscape like that deserves large-scale protections."

The President has the power to designate monuments under the Antiquities Act, but so far, Obama’s office has given no indication that it has plans for the Owyhee. Although conservationists have been talking for years about a potential wilderness designation for the Owyhee, a national campaign initiated by Keen Footwear spurred support for a national monument designation for the area instead.

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<p>Residents and conservationists disagree over what should be done to protect the Owyhee region in southeastern Oregon.</p>

Amanda Peacher

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Residents and conservationists disagree over what should be done to protect the Owyhee region in southeastern Oregon.

<p>Far away from city lights, this remote corner of Southeast Oregon provides great views of the night sky.</p>

Amanda Peacher

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Far away from city lights, this remote corner of Southeast Oregon provides great views of the night sky.

<p>Rancher Bob Skinner says the Owyhee is already protected, by its isolation and remoteness. "If we get a big influx of people coming in here because they shine a spotlight on it with a monument, that is what&rsquo;s going to be the problem," Skinner said.</p>

Amanda Peacher

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Rancher Bob Skinner says the Owyhee is already protected, by its isolation and remoteness. "If we get a big influx of people coming in here because they shine a spotlight on it with a monument, that is what’s going to be the problem," Skinner said.

<p>Leslie Gulch in Southeastern Oregon features sheer rock walls and red rock formations.</p>

Amanda Peacher

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Leslie Gulch in Southeastern Oregon features sheer rock walls and red rock formations.

<p>Cheatgrass dominates the landscape in the Owyhee. The invasive species is a problem in much of Eastern Oregon.</p>

Amanda Peacher

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Cheatgrass dominates the landscape in the Owyhee. The invasive species is a problem in much of Eastern Oregon.

<p>Giant red rock formations protrude from grassy, rolling hills. Although the Owyhee is known for its canyons, the majority of the land mass in the area is high desert sagebrush country.&nbsp;</p>

Amanda Peacher

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Giant red rock formations protrude from grassy, rolling hills. Although the Owyhee is known for its canyons, the majority of the land mass in the area is high desert sagebrush country. 

Amanda Peacher