Wilderness for Ranchers: the Bad Owyhee Wilderness Bill

Senator Wyden and Senator Merkley have introduced the ‘‘Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act’’ (MCEOA). The senators can be commended for taking on such a controversial issue and trying to find a solution to public lands protection.

While the bill would designate more than a million areas of new wilderness, and among other positive things, establish a native plant nursery, MCEOA has so many bad provisions that are not in the public interest that it should be opposed.

It is important to understand that this legislation was created in reaction to a 2.5-million-acre national monument proposal that conservationists were advocating. To head off the creation of a national monument, the local livestock industry came up with its own proposal. While a few concessions were made to create new wilderness areas, the overall legislative goals are to enshrine ranching as the primary use of these public lands.

The legislation starts out with some high-minded language that asserts: “The purpose of this Act is to promote the long-term ecological health of the Federal land…”

However, it then promotes policies that are inconsistent with that goal. The legislation reads as if written by Malheur County ranchers, bends over backward to mandate and promote livestock grazing.

Considering that 94% of rangelands under BLM management fails to meet minimum ecological health standards primarily due to grazing, the assumption that grazing can “restore” these lands is questionable.


The legislation makes several false assertions like alleging that livestock may be used for the ecological “improvement” of public lands. This ignores the large body of scientific documentation of the numerous ecological impacts that are attributed to livestock production.

For instance, livestock production is the single greatest source of species endangerment of species in the West including numerous fish, amphibians, birds and mammals, and the well known sage grouse.

Livestock is the reason that the majority of riparian areas (green areas along waterway) are impaired and not functioning. These riparian areas are used by 70-80% of all wildlife species at some time in their life cycle, so their loss or degradation has serious ecological consequences.

Livestock is the greatest source of water pollution on federal lands.

Livestock grazing is the single biggest factor in the spread of weeds, and the establishment of cheatgrass, an exotic annual that is prone to fires.

Livestock is the reason we are killing native wildlife like coyotes and wolves—on public lands.

Livestock hay production is the reason many rivers are annually dewatered much to the detriment of our fisheries and aquatic ecosystem.

Most ecologists would tell you that eliminating livestock production on these federal lands would do far more for their ecological health than any benefit from wilderness designation.

Other questionable assumptions enshrined in the legislation is the idea that livestock grazing can reduce or eliminate large wildfires (false). That water developments, water troughs, water pipelines, and other associated range “developments” will reduce habitat fragmentation (false).

MCEOA goes beyond most legislation to demand that the federal government “protect… western traditions.”  Why is supporting a lifestyle (which given the above issues could be more characterized as a deathstyle) that depends on the degradation of the public property considered a value worthy of protecting?


The legislation hands over local land management to a Malheur Community Empowerment for Owyhee group (CEO) that will appoint members to another Advisory Group–both clearly designed to maintain local rancher control over federal lands. These groups would oversee grazing and monitoring on public lands (what about the BLM employees?)  and promote vegetation manipulation projects (like planting non-native grasses for cattle consumption and/or removal of native juniper and sagebrush).

The CEO group would consist of 13 people – 6 ranchers, 1 Burns Paiute representative, and 6 from other interests, including 2 who must reside in Malheur County almost ensuring local control of the public’s property.

Worse, under MCEOA, a majority of the advisory group members would constitute a quorum, but only if the number of rancher-representatives equals or exceeds the number of non-ranchers. Talk about a stacked deck!

In effect MCEOA legalizes what the Bundy hoodlums tried to do by force—it excludes the larger public from the public lands decision-making process and makes livestock grazing the primary purpose of public lands management.

As someone who worked as a biologist for the BLM, I can assure you that the proposed rancher advisory group will control public land decisions. Any BLM manager who fails to defer to the advisory board risks being “reassigned.”

Why should ranchers and Malheur County residents have the majority positions on any advisory group? These are federal lands that belong to all Americans, not just the residents of Malheur County. Why do we need an “Advisory” committee to monitor and oversee grazing on public lands? Isn’t that what we are paying the Bureau of Land Management employees to do? Isn’t that what public review and public involvement in the NEPA process is supposed to support?

There are many unquestioned assertions in the legislation—typically made to promote the livestock industry. For instance, the legislation proclaims that livestock grazing contributes to a significant portion of the economic well-being of Malheur County.

Yet agriculture, which includes a lot more than grazing, only contributes 1.6% to Malheur County’s resident’s income. The percentage resulting from livestock production on public lands is a tiny fraction of this total.

Another unquestioned assumption is the premise that livestock is a “tool” to improve the ecological health of the land.” A hammer is a tool as well, but if it is used to swat mosquitoes on your face, your face will suffer.


While on the surface the designation of approximately 1.1 million acres of new wilderness would seem to be a positive feature of the legislation, there are many problematic aspects to even this part of bill. The bill would release from interfirm wilderness protection some 209,521 acres of existing WSA.

While the designation of more than 1.1 million acres is significant, the loss of any WSAs would permit on-going range developments, juniper and sagebrush removal and other cow-friendly management to degrade the ecological integrity of these lands.

MCEOA allows for the Interior Secretary to undertake “any activities necessary for control of fire, insect, and disease”.

Under such a provision questionable management policy would be allowed like vegetation “treatments” that mow and burn sage communities, herbicide spraying, juniper cutting, and other projects normally considered inconsistent with wilderness policies.


The MCEOA sets a really bad precedent by reducing environmental analysis of site-specific project review that is currently legally mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Under current regulations the public can participate at many stages in any federal proposal, however, MCEOA significantly reduces public participation in federal land management decisions (on our lands) by limiting public participation to Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS). This review of more than 4.5 million acres will guide management for the area. After the PEIS is completed, there will be no further opportunities for NEPA public involvement at the site-specific level.


This legislation is also filled with taxpayer-funded and questionable projects–totaling around a billion dollars over 10 years, but nothing to pay or even allow private party grazing permit buyouts. Mind you that grazing on public lands is a privilege and could be eliminated at any time. Grazing permit buyout basically pays a rancher to give up grazing privileges. In other words, it is a way to allow a rancher to retire, buy more private property for their operation, or pass on a sizeable sum of money to heirs.

Given that livestock grazing jeopardizes water quality, wildlife, recreation, wilderness, native vegetation, soil, biocrusts, and promotes things like cheatgrass, predator killing, and other assorted public lands abused, the fact this legislation contains no provision for grazing permit buyout is yet another example of the pro-livestock bias.

Without significant changes in this legislation, even the establishment of approximately 1.1 million acres of new wilderness is not worth the precedent-setting bad provisions of this legislation.

It is hoped that both Senator Wyden and Merkley will revamp this legislation or abandon it.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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