New Ore. wilderness areas stalled in Congress
Conservationists say proposals have broad support
It's looking unlikely that the U.S. Senate will pass a collection of bills to protect public lands, including wilderness designations in five states. In Oregon, that means plans for the areas known as Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven are on hold again.
A few lawmakers in Congress want to add their states' pet projects to any wilderness legislation in order to gain their votes -- while others have committed to voting "no" on any bill they see as "tying up" more land.
Brent Fenty, who heads the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association, says there should have been smooth sailing for the Oregon bill, which has broad local support.
"There isn't the kind of civility that used to exist in the Senate, where you can get a voice vote and move bills through that are non-controversial," Fenty said. "Instead, all bills are being held. And therefore, it forces a collection of bills to come together and be passed as an omnibus."
Expansion of the Oregon Caves National Monument is also among the proposals that are stalled.
Fenty says the bills hung up in the stalemate do not include major costs or tie up significant mineral or oil and gas rights.
In the next session of Congress, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is considered a likely candidate to chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Rancher Matt Smith is a cattleman whose Cherry Creek Ranch borders the proposed Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven wilderness areas in Central Oregon. He thinks Wyden would be a good choice, and might even help break the deadlock.
"He listens, and he comes up with plausible and pragmatic solutions to all kinds of stuff that affect a part of the state that's usually just neglected -- and a part of the state that's very Republican, and he's very much not," Smith said. "He's a team player."
Designating the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven areas as wilderness would allow more public access to a popular stretch of the wild-and-scenic John Day River.
Smith thinks others could learn from the collaboration it took to hammer out the proposal.
"The process that we've begun here with Horse Heaven and Cathedral Rock, I hope it sets a precedent for how to do this," he said. ". It addresses all of the concerns from all sides of the table. That's the way the process should go."
If the legislation does not make it through Congress this time, Smith says they will try again next year. If a package of bills cannot be passed, this will be the first Congress since the 1960s to designate no new federal Wilderness.
Chris Thomas of Oregon News Service prepared this report
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