It’s not often that you find a proposed wilderness area that counts big businesses, the real estate industry and developers among its supporters. But the people behind the Oregon Badlands proposal are only part of what makes the area unique. Visitors to this expanse of High Desert land just 15 miles east of Bend will find fascinating lava formations, Native American pictographs, a prehistoric dry river canyon, and thousand year-old juniper trees. It’s no wonder that Central Oregonians have been working for over 20 years to protect the Badlands as Wilderness.
“The Badlands is a place that has captured the hearts of multiple generations here in Bend,” said Brent Senty the executive director for the Oregon Natural Desert Association. “We are working to permanently protect the area with a federal Wilderness designation, so that our grandchildren will be able to experience this pristine High Desert habitat,” he continued.
With the recent introduction of a bill to protect this area, supporters of Badlands Wilderness are getting closer to achieving their goal. “More and more people come out in support of the proposal every day,” says Senty. “It has been amazing to see folks from all corners of our community rally behind this special area.”
Most recently, the Central Oregon Association of Realtors (COAR) voted to endorse the Badlands Wilderness proposal. “We agree with proponents that a Badlands Wilderness area will enhance the region’s quality of life by providing another recreational and scenic amenity that also will contribute to economic development,” explained Tom Green, the president of the realtors association. COAR joins a long list of businesses that support Badlands Wilderness, including many top Central Oregon employers such as Deschutes Brewery, Mt. Bachelor, Brooks Resources and Jeld-Wen Communities. This diverse base of supporters has contributed greatly to the recent success of the Badlands campaign.
The Badlands’ Troubled Past
Despite the abundance of local support for wilderness protection, the outlook for the Badlands has not always been so bright. In 1980, the Bureau of Land Management designated the Badlands as a Wilderness Study Area, and over the next nine years, the agency studied the area for wilderness characteristics like opportunity for solitude, the natural quality of the landscape and other special features. Wilderness can only be designated by an act of Congress, and it is the highest level of protection that our public lands can receive. A wilderness designation preserves special portions of our public land in their rustic state, free of development, roads and motorized activities. In 1989, the BLM recommended that Congress take the final step of permanently conserving the Badlands as Wilderness.
Unfortunately, while the Badlands awaited permanent protection by Congress, the area saw more than its share of abuse. Native American Pictographs were irreparably defaced. Off-road vehicles tore through the Badlands’ delicate soil and vegetation. Thousand year-old junipers were illegally cut for use in decorative furniture. Junk and trash were dumped in the middle of this otherwise pristine habitat.
Local rancher Ray Clarno found this abuse hard to ignore. The fences on his ranch on the west side of the Badlands were constantly being cut by off-road vehicle riders, and he was fed up. “I was spending all of my time mending fences,” he says. Clarno’s frustration led him to approach the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) to see how he could work with the group to improve the area. He agreed that if ONDA would help him get the area closed to motorized vehicles, then he would consider retiring his grazing permits in the Badlands.
When the BLM finally banned motorized recreation in the Badlands in 2005, Clarno stayed true to his word and permanently retired his grazing permits, leaving over 1/3 of the Badlands cow-free. The area can now recover with just the minimal impact of the occasional hiker or horseback rider.
“Wilderness is the only way to go for the Badlands,” says Clarno. “They are too sensitive to handle off-road vehicles. Without controls, the Badlands would have been torn to pieces.”
A Brighter Future
Fortunately, the story does not end there. Nearly 20 years after the BLM made its recommendation to Congress, supporters of Badlands Wilderness are finally close to victory. Last June, Senator Ron Wyden took notice of the outpouring of local support for the proposal and introduced the Badlands Wilderness Act of 2008. The bill quickly moved through the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, and on September 11, it passed unanimously out of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
“We are encouraged by how quickly the Badlands bill has moved, and we are so thankful for all of the hard work that Senator Wyden and his staff have put into protecting this special area,” said Brent Fenty, ONDA’s executive director.
Although time is short in this session of Congress, there is still a good chance that the Badlands Wilderness Act will pass this year. After passing through the Senate Natural Resources Committee, the bill was grouped together with others like it into an omnibus package that is now awaiting action on the Senate floor. The legislature has been exceptionally busy, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced last week that the Senate will go into a lame duck session on November 17 to deal with the over 150 bills included in the package with the Badlands.
The future of the Badlands bill in this Congress is still unknown, but Central Oregonians have made their preference clear. “As a local business owner, I feel very strongly that designation of the nearby Oregon Badlands just makes good business and economic sense,” said Kirk Schueler, president of Brooks Resources Corporation in Bend. The responsibility to protect the Badlands now lies with our leaders in Congress, explained Schueler. “We are urging our representatives in Congress to make this a reality this year.”