Drive east from Portland, past the dense forests west of the Cascades, past where the juniper trees smooth out into rolling hills. Keep driving and you’ll hit what some call Oregon’s Grand Canyon.
Two and a half million acres of rivers and cliffs, desert and meadows, the Owyhee Canyonlands is one of the most remote places in the west. As development encroaches on wilderness across the U.S., the Owyhee remains one of the darkest places in America, with little light pollution to interfere with stargazing. Cell phone signals fall silent across its vast range.
“A lot of people think of a desert Canyonlands as not much, but I’ve taken many people out there and they’re just in awe,” said Tim Davis, with the conservation group Friends of the Owyhee. “The scenic beauty of it, the remoteness, some of the unknown history that’s out there – it’s something completely different.”
In the next two months, President Barack Obama could use his authority to designate the Owyhee Canyonlands a national monument, permanently protecting a swath of land larger than Yellowstone Park from destructive activities that could irreparably change the region. He has support from powerful environmental advocacy groups and the Portland-based company KEEN Footwear, but around the Owyhee region supporters are outnumbered nine to one by residents who oppose what they see as a federal takeover of their land.
The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January stoked an already fiery debate over federal land management and in March, Malheur County voted against the Owyhee Canyonlands national monument, 5,291 to 609, in a symbolic ballot measure.
President Obama, however, has the final say in the matter and a spokesman for groups that oppose a monument says Donald Trump’s election may inspire Obama to protect as much land as he can before a Republican president takes office.
“We certainly expect that there are more monuments coming,” said Ryan Frank, spokesman of the opposition group Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition.
Unlike national parks, which require congressional approval, national monuments can be created with the flick of a president’s wrist thought the Antiquities Act, established in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt.
Trump has criticized Obama for designating monuments and he is unlikely to establish many, if any, while in office. No president has ever attempted to reverse a national monument designation and Trump would face legal roadblocks if he tried.
A spree of monument designations before Trump’s inauguration is not out of the question. When Bill Clinton was president, he designated 19 national monuments. Nine of those designations happened after George W. Bush was elected but before he took office. Eight happened in the three days before Bush’s inauguration.
Obama has already established 24 national monuments, more than any other president in history.
Oregon currently has two national monuments: Oregon Caves in Cave Junction, established by William Taft in 1909, and Cascade-Siskiyou, west of Ashland, established by Clinton in 2000.
The Milky Way as seen from the Owyhee Canyonlands. Photo: Jim Davis
While KEEN, the Oregon Natural Desert Association, the Sierra Club and other conservation groups have banded together to lobby for the Owyhee Canyonlands monument, a litany of ranching, hunting, farming, realty and investment groups oppose it.
“Obama has at best flown over the area. He’s never been here and he’s telling us what’s going to happen,” said Elias Eiguren, a fifth-generation cattleman who lives in the tiny town of Arock, which borders the Owyhees in Oregon’s Jordan Valley. “We need to do something or else we’re going to be railroaded.”
Eiguren is part of the coalition that opposes the monument. The group launched a campaign “Our Land Our Voice” that argues locals who use the land are the best guardians and the Owyhees are already secured by a safety net of protections including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.
“We have dirt under our fingernails, working here every day,” he said. “We were born here, we live here and ultimately will die here. If it’s good for the land it will be good for us. We don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt the land. We think our voice should have a certain amount of priority over folks that don’t live here.”
The proposed monument is not just an expansive recreational area for camping, hiking and fishing. Ranchers graze cattle on the land. Depending on their grazing permits, ranchers graze either year-round or six months a year. The ranchers maintain fences and water supplies in the region. They fight fires when lightning strikes.
“We think we’re doing a pretty dang good job taking care of it,” Eiguren said. “We have pasture rotations we go through. We have wells and pipelines. Tanks we turn on at certain times so we don’t create a dustbowl.”
Elias Eiguren puts out salt for cattle with his son, with the Owyhees in the distance.
Environmental groups say the ranchers’ relationships with the land won’t change with a monument designation, but Eiguren worries it could mean less access to the land. He says added protections could keep residents from driving on the land, which could dampen their ability to attack wildfires and repair fences.
He also worries about the government or environmental groups purchasing ranchers’ grazing permits, slowly pushing out the estimated 25,000 head of cattle that graze in the Owyhees.
This is not an unfounded fear. After the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument was designated by Bill Clinton in 2000, conservation groups bought grazing permits.
In Oregon, some ranchers who grazed cattle at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge voluntarily sold their permits to the federal government. Some ranching families wanted out of the business. Others said they were sick of dealing with the federal government, according to a High Country News report.
A spokeswoman for the Oregon Natural Desert Association said national monuments are protective of grazing rights.
Tim Davis said he’s familiar with all of these fears. But he’s already seen the land change in his lifetime and some form of permanent protection could keep the land pristine.
“We do trash cleanup in the main area where people go camping – usually there’s a small amount of trash. Last year, we got 12 large trash bags of trash,” he said.
Others who support the monument have fears of their own – mainly, threats of development that have already laid plans for change.
“[Our Land Our Voice] says there are layers of protection,” said Dan Cherry, spokesman for the Northwest Sport Fishing Association. “We look at that as a patchwork of protection. None of those are permanent and none are intended to be permanent. When big money and development wants something and you have this thin wall of protection that we currently have up, that can easily be removed.”
There are active gas, oil and mining interests ready to pounce on land near the Owyhees.
More than 170,000 acres are leased for oil and gas exploration near the proposed conservation already.
The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) released a report, identifying at least six different minerals in Southern and Eastern Oregon that have a high economic potential for miners.
“They’re saying this is prime-time gold and uranium,” Cherry said.
He worries mining could impact the pristine fishing in the area. The Owyhees are also home to a plethora of flora and fauna, many of which are threatened or endangered. An estimated 28 plant species exist nowhere else in the world.
“This is one of the best brown trout fisheries in all of Oregon and throughout the west,” he said. “There’s also a biologically unique species called redband trout.”
Fishing, along with other outdoor opportunities, are an undeniable economic boon to Malheur County, which is the poorest county in Oregon. A study commissioned by NSIA Fishing showed that outdoor recreation in Malheur County contributed $43.8 million to the local economy, supporting more than 460 jobs.
In a state with a sharp urban-rural divide, the prospect that may be hardest to swallow for those in Malheur County is the one that will inevitably change. If development or mining does not encroach on the Owyhees, outsiders surely will. Monument or no monument, the Owyhees are drawing people from across the state and country to a land where people are used to the privilege of being left alone. City-dwellers joyriding to the Eastern Oregon wilderness to use land that, for generations, has remained largely a secret is not a welcome prospect for many in the area.
“We kind of like being quiet and left alone most days,” Eiguren said. “I don’t think it’s something that needs to be promoted.”
Davis says it may be too late, even without a national monument.
“In the age we’re in, it’s almost impossible to keep something a secret anymore,” he said.