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Merkley visits Harney County

Owyhee monument proposal discussed


Senator Jeff Merkley held a town hall meeting at the Senior Center May 20. (Photo by RANDY PARKS)
Senator Jeff Merkley held a town hall meeting at the Senior Center May 20. (Photo by RANDY PARKS)

The proposal to make the Owyhee Canyonlands a national monument was the main topic of discussion at a town hall meeting with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley that was held Friday, May 20, at the Harney County Senior and Community Services Center.

Several students from Jake Thompson’s U.S. History class at Burns High School (BHS) were in attendance, and Gaby Gibbon, a junior at BHS, was afforded the opportunity to ask Merkley the first question of the evening.

Seizing the opportunity, Gibbon asked Merkley, “What is your position on turning the Owyhee Canyonlands into a national monument?”

Merkley said there were many people advocating for a wilderness designation, and he and Senator Ron Wyden were asked if they would sponsor a  wilderness bill, as that has to be done by Congress. Merkley said, based on the feedback he got from the community, he said no to sponsoring a wilderness proposal.

Merkley then touched on the history of the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act of 2000 and how it came about. He said he spoke with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, and his statement to her was that if they were considering a process related to Owyhee Canyon, they needed to have a full dialogue with the community and understand all the concerns that the community has.

Merkley said a national monument is a very flexible instrument, able to accommodate all kinds of issues regarding public access, grazing, fire, juniper, firewood, community gathering places, and so forth, but that doesn’t mean all those things will be taken into account.

“My understanding right now, is that the Interior does not have a process, is not planning to put forward a monument plan for the Owyhee, based on the feedback they have received so far,” Merkley said. “You never know what’s happening inside every cubicle, but that’s my understanding, so I think the community has been heard in that regard.”

A short time later, Merkley was asked if the president chooses to use the powers that he has granted to him through the Antiquities Act and asks your opinion, will you tell him what the will of the people is, and yes or no, do you support the designation of the Owyhee Canyonlands as a national monument?

Merkley replied that if the president came to him and asked the question, he would say to him, “You shouldn’t do it unless you’ve had the conversation with the community, and they have said basically, they will not do a monument unless they’ve had a conversation with the community, and you shouldn’t even consider it unless you’re going to accommodate a whole long list of concerns that the community has. If you can design it in that fashion, then there’s a conversation to be had with the community.”

Merkley added that he would make sure all the issues raised by concerned citizens are well known.

Two questions later, Merkley was asked if he was for or against the designation of a national monument, and if he was for it, what has he done to promote it, and if he was against it, what has he done to stop it?

Merkley said he thinks the executive branch, which has full power to pursue it, shouldn’t do so without full consultation and accommodation of the concerns that the community has raised.

“If they came and said, ‘Here’s our plan,’ then I could tell you if I was for it or against it because it could look dramatically different from one end of the spectrum to the other end of the spectrum. But I am emphatically against a monument that is not done to accommodate the concerns of the community. I’ll put it that way,” Merkley said.

Merkley also said it is his impression that the executive branch is not pursuing the designation.

Merkley was asked about the “broad paintbrush the government paints with” when making new laws and regulations, and how they affect individuals in different manners, such as the flood plain issue. Merkley spoke about the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which would have increased flood insurance rates for millions of people across the country, and the effort to repeal the Act. He said the effort to repeal it began with community members pointing out a problem, and that’s why town hall meetings are important. He added that more decisions need to be done at the local and state level.

Merkley also answered questions about the clean-up effort at the Hanford Site and the lack of success there; the need for more funding for education; increases in Social Security payments and veterans benefits; and campaign contributions.

Before taking questions, Merkley praised the county for having the highest turnout of voters, 72 percent, in the primary election. He then talked about the government doing away with the No Child Left Behind Act and replacing it with Every Child Succeeds, giving states more say in educating children.

Merkley said they are also working on getting more funding for water system infrastructure across the country, a different funding system for fighting wildfires, and the task of keeping the sage grouse off the endangered species list.

Merkley also presented Angie Lamborn, the senior center executive director, with a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol, and recognized several of the center’s volunteer leaders.

Randy Parks

Randy was born in Iowa, and spent most of his life growing up in the Hawkeye State. After a few years in college, he settled in Idaho for a decade, skiing, golfing, and working at Sun Valley Resort. He married in 1985, completed broadcast school, and moved to Harney County in 1989 to work for KZZR. After 16 years of on-air work, he left the radio station and went to work for the Burns Times-Herald.

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