Merkley Proposes Legislation to Protect Sutton Mountain

Following the lead of the Wheeler County Board of Commissioners and the Mitchell City Council, Senator Jeff Merkley introduced a bill in the US Senate last Thursday to protect Sutton Mountain and the surrounding land as a wilderness area.

The S.M.P.H.A.P.E.E.A. 2015

Intended to protect roughly 58,000 acres of public land, and with a mouthful of a moniker, the Sutton Mountain and Painted Hills Area Preservation and Economic Enhancement Act of 2015 would create the much more reasonably-named Sutton Mountain Wilderness Area, east of the Painted Hills in east-central Oregon.

The Sutton Mountain region is famous for its breathtaking scenery, diverse wildlife, and excellent recreational opportunities. With broad vistas, deep canyons, and other beautiful topography, Sutton Mountain is home to elk, mule deer, several species of raptors, and many species of plants that can be found nowhere else on the planet.

Merkley’s S.M.P.H.A.P.E.E.A. 2015 also includes protection for the Sand Mountain, Pat’s Cabin, and Dead Dog Canyon wilderness study areas.

Endorsed by the ONDA

In a statement, Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) executive director Brent Fenty said, “We’re grateful for the efforts of Sen. Jeff Merkley to protect a truly spectacular part of the state’s high desert. His leadership will benefit the economy of the John Day region, the wildlife that calls these areas home, and generations of Oregonians who will cherish these wild lands.”

Painted Hills at the John Day National Monument.

Painted Hills at the John Day National Monument.

Currently classified as a “wilderness study area,” Sutton Mountain has long been in ONDA’s sights as a candidate for formal government protection. Based in Bend, Oregon, ONDA is a nonprofit organization that has worked to preserve and restore Oregon’s high desert region for over a quarter century.

Championed Locally

Local city and county officials have wholeheartedly endorsed the Sutton Mountain and Painted Hills Area Preservation and Economic Enhancement Act. The second- and third-to-last words in that sentence are key: local officials cite the potential for economic growth as the major benefit of the bill. A proposed 1,959-acre land transfer would give Wheeler County the opportunity to put that land to public use. An airstrip and a police facility are just two of many proposed uses.

In a statement released by ONDA, Wheeler County Judge Chris Perry said, “We’re pleased to see this moving forward, as we believe the bill will offer the area an economic boost. As home to the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, we know that tourism and recreation can help support businesses. These businesses will also benefit from those who come to appreciate Sutton Mountain.”

Also, Perry didn’t add, nature conservation and all that.

Photo credit: Scott Butner / Source / CC BY-NC-ND