Congress moves on local proposals

Babbitt's 'monument tour' led to some legislative solutions

 

The Antiquities Act has gotten plenty of exercise this year. President Clinton used his power under the 1906 law to designate eight new national monuments in the West. The grand total during his two terms: 10 national monuments covering more than 3.6 million acres of Western land, a presidential record in the lower 48 states.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was the president's on-the-ground scout. During his "monument tour" of the West, Babbitt offered locals a choice. They could work with their congressional delegation to come up with tougher safeguards for the land in question, or they could wait for the president to roll out the Antiquities Act (HCN, 11/22/99: Go tell it on the mountain).

Many Western Republicans jumped at the chance to avoid more Clinton-designated monuments. During the last days of the congressional session, they led the charge to protect well over 2 million acres of Western land.

A cow-free wilderness

In August of last year, Babbitt visited Burns, Ore., the heart of the state's cattle country. He told his audience that he wanted to give more federal protection to nearby Steens Mountain, a 9,600-foot ridge rising out of eastern Oregon's Alvord Desert.

After months of negotiations with ranchers and environmentalists, the Oregon congressional delegation, led by Republican Rep. Greg Walden, proposed the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act of 2000.

Approved by Congress in mid-October, the bill designates 172,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management wilderness on the Steens, including 105,000 "cow-free" acres. The legislation also simplifies the land ownership patterns on the mountain through land trades, sets aside new Wild and Scenic Rivers sections and bans mining from a 1.1 million-acre area.

Oregon environmentalists, including Oregon Natural Desert Association director Bill Marlett and Wilderness Society lobbyist Andy Kerr, leaned heavily on the congressional delegation to toughen the protections in the bill. Marlett, a longtime critic of public-lands ranching, says the final version is everything his group hoped for.

"At its core, the cow-free wilderness is what we were after," says Marlett. "That's precedent-setting, not just in Oregon but westwide."

Stacy Davies, who manages the Roaring Springs Ranch on Steens Mountain, isn't nearly as pleased. "I hate to be so negative, but this is the lesser of two evils," he says. "A monument would have been devastating. It would have brought a lot more people and a whole different focus to the management activity."

Ranchers on Steens Mountain have cooperated on habitat-restoration projects over the past several years (HCN, 3/13/00: Round two for Steens Mountain development), and Davies and others fear the new protections will restrict efforts such as juniper management. "All the major problems on the mountain were being dealt with cooperatively," says rancher Fred Otley, who will lose access to a high-elevation public-lands grazing allotment. "The mountain would have been better off just the way it was."

The rest of the list

In southern Arizona, another locally developed plan has won a congressional stamp of approval. After Babbitt visited the Cienega Creek area, Rep. Jim Kolbe and Sen. John McCain, both Republicans, sponsored a bill to establish the 48,000-acre Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. The BLM plans to expand the area to 143,000 acres after it acquires surrounding state and private lands through purchase or trade.

Like the Steens legislation, the bill is a result of negotiations among ranchers, other local landowners, and environmentalists. Luther Propst of the Sonoran Institute, a regional environmental group that participated in the negotiations, says the creek is one of the best stretches of perennial water in the state.

"The biggest environmental victory is getting state land under federal protection," he adds. Because the state land office must maximize profit from its holdings, state lands are often threatened with development.

Unlike many Steens Mountain ranchers, Mac Donaldson of Empire Ranching says the new protections will be good for his business. He holds grazing permits on 80,000 acres of land within the future expanded conservation area, and says the designation will help to make the permitting process more predictable. "We'd like to see a little more stability in the area, and this will help us toward that goal," he says. Though some local ranchers agree with Donaldson, others opposed the conservation area, fearing that the protections would interfere with their grazing permits and existing water rights.

Babbitt's monument tour also included the Black Ridge Canyons of west-central Colorado, an area adjoining Colorado National Monument. When Babbitt expressed interest in expanding Colorado National Monument to include the sandstone canyons of the Black Ridge, Republican Rep. Scott McInnis responded with a proposal of his own. The final version of his bill, which establishes 75,550 acres of BLM wilderness within a 122,000-acre National Conservation Area, was approved by Congress in early October.

Congress also passed protections for several other areas on Babbitt's wish list, including the Santa Rosa Mountains of southeastern California - an area championed by Republican Rep. Mary Bono - and 1.2 million acres of northwestern Nevada's Black Rock Desert. An upgrade of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument to national park status (HCN, 6/19/00: The Great Sand Dunes: the next new national park?), which passed Congress on Oct. 25, authorizes the purchase of 41,000 acres of private land on the edge of the existing monument.

A holding pattern

Babbitt's monument tour may not be over. Though he's promised not to add any new areas to his list, two areas he visited this year remain candidates for monument status under the Antiquities Act: the Craters of the Moon in central Idaho and the Missouri River Breaks in eastern Montana.

Don't expect these new recommendations to hit the Oval Office until after Nov. 7, however. "We're in a holding pattern," says Interior spokesman John Wright.

Meanwhile, Steens Mountain rancher Stacy Davies hopes his backyard will be quiet for a while. "Hopefully, we'll get some long-term stability as a result of this legislation," he says. "It's less likely that Congress will be back here, and less likely that the environmental community will be pushing for something more right away."

But Marlett of the Oregon Natural Desert Association doesn't sound satisfied. "The real question to me is, can we do this again next year?" he says. "Can we continue passing wilderness bills in Oregon without the threat of a monument - or is that what it's going to take every time we want to get something done that's good for the land?"

Michelle Nijhuis is an associate editor at High Country News; Oakley Brooks is an HCN intern.

You can contact ...

  • Oregon Natural Desert Association, 541/330-2638;
  • Steens Mountain rancher Stacy Davies, 541/495-2263;
  • U.S. Department of the Interior, 202/208-6416.
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