U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden announced at an April town hall meeting in Ontario that he wanted to work with a coalition of ranchers and conservationists to settle a long-standing dispute over the Owyhee Canyonlands. (Enterprise/File photo.)

VALE — A move spearheaded by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden to create a new plan for the Owyhee Canyonlands and federally-controlled rangeland in the county is moving ahead.

Wyden’s office announced last week that the Oregon senator’s staff is “meeting regularly with people in Malheur County, as he agreed to do earlier this year at their request when he was in Ontario.”

Wyden announced his decision in April to lead an effort toward compromise on the often-contentious land use priorities between area ranchers and residents and environmental groups. Wyden said then that he wanted to craft a land use plan that included input from ranchers, conservationists and residents. The goal, he said in April, is to create a legislative template that could be reviewed by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources this fall. Wyden serves on that committee.

“He is working toward a bill that addresses possibilities for economic development in Malheur County, including the maintenance and growth of the livestock and recreation industries,” the announcement from Wyden’s office said.

Wyden dubbed his effort the Community Empowerment for the Owyhee, or CEO.

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“There is a great deal of common ground in protecting and restoring the ecology of this stunning and important landscape so it can continue to support the livelihoods of ranch families and rural communities in the county, as well as provide recreation opportunities for visitors,” said the announcement.

At issue is a longstanding dispute between a union of environmental groups and the local Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition. The coalition is made up of 300 paying members and another 11,000 supporters.

The two sides have been divided for several years over how best to preserve the Canyonlands and on the management of federal land in the county.

The stewardship coalition played a key role in scuttling a proposal to designate the Canyonlands a federal monument in the waning days of President Barak Obama’s administration.

Last year, members of the stewardship coalition met with federal lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to promote its own legislation that would assert more local control over rangeland.

The trip was a surprise to the Oregon Natural Desert Association, one of the leading conservation groups that worked for a federal monument designation of the Canyonlands.

Wyden said in April he was asked by the leadership of the stewardship coalition to step in to find a compromise.

In the announcement last week, Wyden’s office said the senator “feels very positive about the conversations that have been taking place.”

The desert association and the stewardship coalition declined to go into detail on the record about talks between the two groups.

“We appreciate that Senator Wyden has convened this dialogue. The Owyhee is a one-of-a-kind place that matters to so many Oregonians and this kind of collaborative discussion is exactly what this landscape needs. We’re working with Senator Wyden, Upper Snake River tribes and diverse stakeholders, including ranchers, conservation groups, outdoor recreation businesses and others, to find solutions that safeguard all we hold dear in Oregon’s Owyhee,” the desert association said in a statement released last week.

Elias Eiguren, a Jordan Valley rancher and treasurer for the stewardship group referred all questions about ongoing negotiations to Wyden’s office.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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