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2016: The "Year of Wilderness" for Sutton Mountain?

Most people who have seen Oregon's Painted Hills in Wheeler County have traversed some part of the surrounding land that's now up for wilderness protection in Congress. (Bob DenOuden)
Most people who have seen Oregon's Painted Hills in Wheeler County have traversed some part of the surrounding land that's now up for wilderness protection in Congress. (Bob DenOuden)
December 28, 2015

FOSSIL, Ore. - It's been almost a year since legislation to create new wilderness in north-central Oregon was introduced in Congress, and its backers are hoping 2016 is the "Year of Sutton Mountain."

All told, local support for adding 58,000 acres of federal wilderness around the Painted Hills, part of a national monument, has been building for about a decade. The proposal includes four separate parcels of land, mostly because of existing roads.

In this case, said Ben Gordon, stewardship director for the Oregon Natural Desert Association, having a road around Sutton Mountain can be seen as a bonus.

"We kind of see that road as advantageous to the area," he said, "because it is so accessible to people of different fitness levels, where they may just want to go for a short hike or they want to have a big, extended-day adventure."

The legislation has been idle since it was first introduced in May by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. But Gordon said it could get a mark-up in January and a Senate committee hearing soon after.

An additional goal of the Sutton Mountain wilderness bill is to boost the tourism economy in the region. It includes about 1,900 acres close to the town of Mitchell to be developed as an RV park and campground, airstrip, police facility and interpretive center. Gordon said it's part of what has garnered the support of Wheeler County officials and residents.

"The hope is that people will stay for longer," he said. "Current businesses will thrive and new business opportunities will present themselves as the increased visitation dictates what the interests are, by the visitors."

Much of the land already is designated as Wilderness Study Areas by the Bureau of Land Management. However, with recent rumblings in Congress about eliminating that kind of designation, Gordon said, conservation and sportsman's groups feel the time is now to put stronger protections in place.

The bill's text is online at govtrack.us.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR