- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2016

SALEM, Oregon (AP) - Sparks flew Monday during a hearing attended by ranchers and environmentalists in the state Capitol on a proposal to turn 2.5 million acres of canyonlands and desert in southeastern Oregon into a federally protected monument.

Cattlemen said their livelihoods could be threatened.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe told a panel of state lawmakers that he was worried armed outsiders would exploit the situation, with families in the remote area having been involved in cattle business for generations and being suspicious of the federal government and what restrictions it might impose.

“If a monument is declared in Malheur County, I am concerned about people from outside the county who will come with their own agendas … and I fear that they will not be reasonable,” Wolfe said.

Declaring the Owyhee Canyonlands, an area known for its spectacular, stark scenery and used by fishermen, rafters, ranchers and others, a national monument would require no legislation. President Barack Obama could endorse the proposal, but it would go through the U.S. Department of Interior first.

In a statement to The Associated Press, the department said: “No recommendations have been made from Interior to the White House about this proposal but we know that this is an important issue to many, and we continue to carefully consider all input about how to best manage these lands for current and future generations.”

The hearing room in the Capitol was so packed with its supporters and opponents that some had to go into an overflow room and watch the proceedings on TV.

Many drove for seven hours from the region - where ranches are often beyond the reach of cellphone service and even dropping off the mail means a long drive - to attend the informational hearing of the House Interim Committee On Rural Communities, Land Use and Water.

Standing in a lobby after the hearing in their cowboy hats, boots and jeans, about a dozen ranchers predicted their grazing rights would be eliminated if the monument is created. They said the proposal is vague.

Asked if they might stage a takeover or put up other armed resistance, the ranchers chuckled and emphatically said no.

Environmentalists and some area residents who also came to testify predicted degradation of the canyonlands if they aren’t given federal protection. They cited threats from oil and gas leasing, from gold and uranium mining and from population pressures, with fast-growing Boise, Idaho, not far away.

They said a patchwork of protection provided by various agencies has no permanence. “These layers of protection come at the whim of whatever government comes next,” Julie Weikel, who has explored the area for years, told a news conference as she urged permanent protection.

Elias Eiguren, a rancher whose Basque great-grandfather came to the Canyonlands to raise sheep, predicted that grazing rights for ranchers would wind up being litigated if the land became a monument, affecting up to 30,000 head of cattle of Malheur County’s total of 70,000.

The opponents have asked Oregon politicians to pressure Obama to reject the proposal.

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter @andrewselsky

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