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The Badlands Wilderness preservation puzzle involves multiple parties

The Badlands: Preservation puzzle involves multiple parties
Sunday, April 28th, 2002

By Rachel Odell
The Bulletin

For decades, the stark, dusty hills east of Bend have beckoned recreationists, ranchers and nature lovers alike.

Dry desert lands marked by sagebrush, juniper trees, slot canyons and lava rock, the Badlands symbolize for some the heart of Central Oregon’s high desert.

And for decades, environmental groups have worked to preserve about 37,000 acres of the Bureau of Land Management land as wilderness, through an act of Congress. But others who love the Badlands - including some ranchers and off-roaders - have fought the proposal, saying wilderness designation would shut out most of the public.

Today, environmentalists from the Oregon Natural Desert Association are attempting a different tack in the contest for wilderness designation.

Rather than engage in a public battle pitting factions against each other, ONDA representatives want to cooperate with their opponents and reach agreements privately, staving off objections, before going to Congress.

They claim some preliminary success. Rancher Ray Clarno has backed the proposal and promised to promote the wilderness concept. The majority of people who own land in the wilderness also have agreed to back the proposal in exchange for land swaps.

At private negotiations, ONDA director Bill Marlett has been orchestrating a series of deals among ranchers, politicians and environmental interests. The agreements, recorded in draft legislation, would create a wilderness area, broker several land exchanges, and allow significant changes in livestock grazing policy on public land.

Still, not all opponents can be appeased through private negotiations, and, in order to establish a Badlands wilderness area, many people will have to sign off on a compromise. So far, the pen isn’t completely dipped in ink.

How to make wilderness
With his quiet, steady voice and dark eyes, Marlett has fought for the Badlands. After unsuccessful attempts in the past, Marlett decided to try a new approach.

When rancher Clarno approached the group about two years ago asking if they wanted to team up to push wilderness, they jumped at the opportunity.

“We need a broad political base when we’re trying to designate an area as wilderness,” Marlett said. “So we went to people whose mission in life is not to create wilderness, but who would back the idea.”

They aim to create a political constituency broad enough to influence Oregon’s delegation to support wilderness.

One of those added constituents, the Central Oregon Irrigation District, is not interested in a wilderness area, should the current legislation become law. Manager Ron Nelson said the district joined the effort to benefit from the land swap, not to promote wilderness.

“I would say we’re neutral on the wilderness debate,” Nelson said.

As ONDA courts cooperation among unlikely allies, naturalist Alice Elshoff extols the virtues of developing a Badlands area.
She said wilderness areas ensure places like the Badlands will not be ruined by teen-agers throwing parties, by off-highway vehicles cruising over fragile soils, or by people dumping trash. Scrambling over rocks during a recent trip to a dry canyon in the Badlands, Elshoff pointed out faded rock paintings, nests of sage rats, and more.

“The people doing the most amount of damage are usually in vehicles,” she said. “Usually, if people have an understanding of the land and walk on it, they are more conscientious of it.” The Badlands were historic grounds for the Indian tribes in the area and today provide important habitat to a range of animals, from cougars to toads, she said.

Despite ONDA’s efforts at cooperation, resistance has remained deep-rooted; some groups still promise to fight wilderness designation.

For years, Joani Dufourd championed the rights of off-road vehicle riders, working for the Blue Ribbon Coalition.

To create wilderness at the Badlands, where current roads already exist, would unfairly exclude a large chunk of the population, Dufourd said.

A wilderness designation would shut out both motorized and mechanized vehicles, including bicycles, but would be open for hikers and horses.

“There are more proactive ways to protect the land than by locking it up from the public except for a few people who will walk in there,” Dufourd said. “I do not see that people are more responsible land managers just because they walk somewhere. Everyone should be able to access this land.” Oregon Cattlemen’s Association President Bob Skinner also opposes the designation. A wilderness, in general, keeps people from accessing land they may have used for generations, he said.

“It is a horrible idea to make more wilderness anywhere in Oregon,” Skinner said. “It is a romantic sounding idea that is perpetuated by people who don’t have a grasp of what is really going on out there.”

Lands Changing Hands
Currently, 1,080 acres within the proposed wilderness area are privately owned. ONDA’s draft bill would legislate land exchanges to transfer private land within the boundary to the Bureau of Land Management.

So far, the proposed exchanges would transfer lands directly outside of the proposed wilderness boundary into the hands of landowners in exchange for their parcels within the boundary. Under the proposal, 894 acres of BLM land would become private, and 1,050 acres would become public: a 156-acre net gain of public land.

By including land swaps in the wilderness legislation, Marlett is repeating a strategy used last year to establish a controversial wilderness area on Steens Mountain in Southeastern Oregon. Traditionally, land exchanges occur under an extensive public process through which the public can access the appraisals and appeal or litigate the decision.

Congressionally-mandated exchanges, however, are out of the public’s reach, which is why Janine Blaeloch of the Seattle-based Western Land Exchange Project opposes ONDA’s legislation.

She charged ONDA with trying to circumvent environmental laws. Her group will support wilderness designation, she said, but not land swaps. “The only fair thing to do is an in-depth analysis of what the public will get in the exchange,” Blaeloch said.

Home on the Range
The final component of the proposed Badlands wilderness bill would allow ranchers to permanently retire livestock grazing permits on land in the wilderness area.

Under current laws, the ranchers could give up those permits, but the BLM could reissue them to other ranchers. If the draft legislation becomes law, the four affected ranchers could permanently retire their permits. Environmental groups would pay the rancher the “market value” of the permit. So far ONDA has raised $1 million in private donations to support the buyouts. Marlett estimated it would cost his group about $100,000 to buy out existing grazing permits in the proposed wilderness area.

Rancher Clarno holds one of those permits, and said he is ready to back the legislation and retire his grazing rights.

Not a staunch wilderness advocate, Clarno wants the protection in order to ban motorized vehicles from the proposed wilderness area.

Clarno said that off-highway vehicle riders routinely cut fences that separate his property from the BLM, and that they also leave cattle gates open.

“If we can get the riffraff off, and get the OHV out of here, I’ll take the cattle off the range,” Clarno said.

However, Skinner of the cattlemen’s group said changing the law to allow ranchers to sell their permits could have far-reaching negative consequences for ranchers.

“What if you are a rancher, you have your back against the wall, you are leveraged to the hilt, you sell your permit, but then what?” Skinner said. “In 20 years where are you?”

Because of Skinner’s opposition, Marlett said he would change the legislation to deal with specific areas within the Badlands, rather than seeking legislation to allow retirement on all public land. “We want to keep this discussion going,” Marlett said. “So we’ll amend the language to discuss specific allotments on the table.”

Congressional support
The true test of this latest approach will be the reaction of the Oregon congressional delegation to the draft legislation. So far, the vote seems split.

In 1999, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden wrote to former President Bill Clinton that the Badlands “merits wilderness or other special protection.”

Josh Karlon, Wyden’s chief of staff, said the senator still supports efforts to promote wilderness, but would not act on a bill until he better understood public sentiment.

“It is time to have a broad discussion about the area’s future, however. Nothing should go forward until the public has had ample opportunity for input,” Kardon said.

Joe Sheffo, spokesman for Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, offered a different perspective. “At this point, we would not endorse wilderness at the Badlands,” Sheffo said. “The fact that all the constituencies have not been able to come together and reach some compromise is why we don’t want to endorse it. We don’t need any more restrictions on public lands.”

Congressman Greg Walden, the 2nd District Republican, has not taken a position, said spokesman Dallas Boyd.

Making History
As the struggle continues, each side says it is poised to continue the fight. Naturalist Elshoff said the area’s history is so rich that she will not give up her efforts to permanently protect it.

“We’re talking so much time and history out there,” she said. “This is very important. We’ll keep the effort going.”

Yet for a bill to ultimately become law, the gaps that exist among different constituencies must shrink, Kardon said.

Rancher Clarno said his cooperation with ONDA epitomizes the relationships that must exist for a successful bill.

“I approached them,” he said of the environmental group. “We actually have goals in common and can work together to make this happen.”

Logo of The Bulletin

Read more: 

A brief history of The Badlands Wilderness Study Area
Senator Wyden tests support for The Badlands Wilderness

Photos of a Badlands Tour with ONDA

Photos of a Navigation Noodle in The Badlands with ONDA

Vandals destroy, deface Badlands Pictographs!