By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling
Published Nov 10, 2014 at 12:02AM
A proposed wilderness encircling Oregon’s famed Painted Hills now has the support of both the county it would be in and the nearest town.
The Wheeler County Court voted last week and the city of Mitchell voted a couple of weeks ago to back the plan for the Sutton Mountain Wilderness, said Ben Gordon, John Day Basin coordinator for the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association. Now that the conservation group has the support of local leaders, he said it is trying to earn the backing of the state’s congressional delegation in Washington D.C.
“We are very hopeful that Congress takes this opportunity to do something good for Wheeler County,” Gordon said.
The planned Sutton Mountain Wilderness would cover 58,000 acres around and in the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The Bureau of Land Management currently oversees the land, which Gordon described as the backdrop to the Painted Hills.
“It is an area with amazing views, vistas, it has really important wildlife habitat, (for) mule deer and Rocky Mountain elk, and because of the geology of the area it has some rare plants that aren’t found anywhere else in the world,” said Brent Fenty, ONDA’s executive director.
The federal designation of a wilderness, like the Three Sisters Wilderness area near Bend, requires an act of Congress and approval by the president.
The proposed Sutton Mountain Wilderness has the attention of Oregon’s two senators, but they have not introduced legislation that would lead to the creation of the wilderness.
“Senator (Ron) Wyden is aware of the strong local support for this proposed wilderness area and is interested in exploring all options for this state treasure,” Hank Stern, press secretary for Wyden, wrote in an email.
“Senator (Jeff) Merkley’s office has been in discussions with Wheeler County, the city of Mitchell and ONDA about the Sutton Mountain wilderness proposal and will continue to work with all partners to see if this wilderness proposal is a possibility,” Courtney Warner Crowell, deputy communications director for Merkley, wrote in an email. “Our office has been impressed with the strong show of local community support for this proposal and (is) consequently considering it for legislative action.”
In recent years, Congress has designated few new wildernesses. The 112th Congress, which served from 2011 to 2013, did not designate any, and the 113th Congress, the current congress sitting until January, has designated only one.
The BLM took over management of the land on and around Sutton Mountain in a land exchange in 1992, Lisa Clark, spokeswoman for the BLM in Prineville, wrote in an email. The exchange consolidated holdings out of what had been a patchwork of public and private land, with the BLM stewardship including mainly step, rocky slopes on the mountain. Much of the land, public and private, had been grazed by sheep until about 1950, when cattle became the livestock of choice.
The BLM manages the land in the proposed Sutton Mountain Wilderness as wilderness study areas, or land agency officials have determined to be fit for wilderness. Gordon said a benefit of having a designated wilderness would be the creation of a management specific to the land.
As part of the proposed Sutton Mountain Wilderness the BLM would transfer about 1,959 acres to Wheeler County, which the county could use for an airstrip, a county-operated RV campground, a police training facility or other purposes, according to ONDA. County officials refer to the land as the “Golden Triangle.” The land stretches along the north side of U.S. Highway 26 west of Mitchell for nearly 3 miles.
“This proposal really is in the best interests of local residents,” Wheeler County Judge Chris Perry said in an ONDA press release. “It will create economic opportunities through tourism and visitation to the new wilderness and through using the Golden Triangle to develop local services.”
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