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New wilderness areas and national monuments have not been a popular topic in rural Oregon during the past year.
Local governments and residents opposed, often loudly, conservation proposals in the Owyhee Canyonlands, Crater Lake and Ochoco National Forest.
But one proposal bucked that trend. Local officials, residents and environmentalists are collaboratively pushing for the Sutton Mountain Wilderness in Eastern Oregon.
Both the Wheeler County Commissioners and Mitchell City Council voted to support creation of a 58,000-acre wilderness centered around a fault block mountain that rises like a battleship above to the Painted Hills.
In fact, they worked with the Bend-based environmental group Oregon Natural Desert Association.
The question is, why does this proposal have local support when others face intense opposition?
To the east, voters in Malheur County rejected a proposal to create an Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument by 90 percent. In Southern Oregon, commissioners in Jackson, Klamath and Douglas counties opposed a proposal for a wilderness area around Crater Lake.
The Prineville City Council and Crook County commissioners voted unanimously to oppose a national recreation area in the Ochoco Mountains.
“There is just no need for additional regulation over our forest,” Seth Crawford, a Crook County commissioner, told the Bend Bulletin.
Yet the Sutton proposal is different, and the main reason is that it offers more than just lofty ideals of preserving a beautiful landscape. It also offers a tangible way for the community to create economic opportunity.
Legislation introduced by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley last year would establish a wilderness on Sutton Mountain and around the Painted Hills. It would preserve canyons, meadows and wildlife while creating one large recreation-rich destination.
But the key is that it would also transfer land from the federal Bureau of Land Management — almost 2,000 acres known as the Golden Triangle — to Wheeler County for economic development.
Residents such as Chris Perry, a Wheeler County judge who grew up in Mitchell, looked at the proposal and decided it made sense.
He saw economic possibilities with new county-owned land and the chance to grow tourism around the Painted Hills, which set an attendance record in 2015.
“There’s potential for this deal to breathe some new life into our community,” Perry said. “Tourism has been growing more than ever before, and the land conveyance gives the community the tools to help itself.”
As for the land being “locked up as wilderness?” Most of it is already designated as a Wilderness Study Area, meaning development there would be unlikely in any case.
Yet the proposal faces a familiar roadblock.
The legislation still hasn’t had a hearing in Congress. No one else in Oregon’s congressional delegation has joined the cause — including wilderness advocates such as Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio.
Rep. Greg Walden, one of the most powerful members of the U.S. House, has generally opposed new wilderness in Oregon.
Merkley said he’ll continue to fight for the proposal but lamented that this type of collaboration doesn’t get the attention that controversy does. In other words, while many Oregonians know about the fight over the Owyhee, the Sutton compromise hasn’t garnered much attention.
Meanwhile, Perry worries that congressional gridlock could doom the community’s enthusiasm.
The county is expecting upwards of 60,000 visitors for a solar eclipse at the Painted Hills in 2017. The county believes that with the 2,000 acres, they could make real money, setting up a large campground and viewing area and keeping more of those people in the Mitchell area.
Without passage of the bill, though, that project becomes more difficult and the momentum loses steam.
“If it takes a long time, a lot of the community buy-in is going to be lost,” Perry said. “Our citizens want to do something — they want to take these tools and start doing something for the community.
“The time to do this is now.”