Today, Sen. Jeff Merkley, announced that he will introduce the Sutton Mountain and Painted Hills Area Preservation and Economic Enhancement Act that would establish the Sutton Mountain Wilderness to protect an area in the John Day River Basin renowned for spectacular scenery and prime wildlife habitat.
“With this legislation, we’ll make sure that future generations will be able to experience some of Oregon’s most incredible landmarks—while also creating jobs and economic opportunities in the county now,” said Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley. “I thank the local community for their impressive work in developing this proposal, and I will continue to do everything I can to be a strong federal partner and put these plans into action.”
“In Mitchell, we’ve seen how protected places like the Painted Hills can help the economy through visitation, and we believe a Sutton Mountain Wilderness can do the same,” said Robert Cannon, a 5th generation Mitchellite who co-owns the Tiger Town Brewery on property passed down from his grandfather.
“We’re thrilled that Senator Merkley listened to the residents of Wheeler County, as well as people across Oregon who appreciate public lands, and brought forth legislation that will protect Sutton Mountain’s unique and breathtaking terrain and provide an economic shot in the arm to the John Day River Basin,” Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) Executive Director Ryan Houston said. “ONDA will do everything we can to support this effort.”
Sutton Mountain stands out as one of the John Day River Basin’s most iconic landmarks, and Merkley’s Sutton Mountain and Painted Hills Area Preservation and Economic Enhancement Act would designate roughly 58,000 acres in the area as wilderness.
Sutton Mountain lies directly across from the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and provides a stunning natural backdrop for these intriguing geologic features. Visitation numbers for the Painted Hills grew significantly after Travel Oregon included the Painted Hills in its wide-reaching “Seven Wonders of Oregon” campaign. Nearly 75,000 people visited the Painted Hills Unit in 2016, according to the National Park Service.
The rugged mountain provides prime habitat for a range of wildlife, including pronghorn, elk and mule deer. ONDA regularly leads volunteer stewardship trips in the John Day Fossil Beds to help ensure safe passage for these migrating animals, and designating the adjacent Sutton Mountain as wilderness will guarantee these animals’ ability to move freely.
Merkley’s act would also convey to the city of Mitchell a 1,959-acre parcel located just outside the city. Known locally as the “Golden Triangle,” the swath was at one time private land and is currently administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
The Wheeler County Court and the Mitchell City Council both voted unanimously in 2015 to support a wilderness designation for Sutton Mountain. Wheeler County has expressed interest in creating services on the Golden Triangle land, such as a police facility, airstrip and county-owned RV campground.
As Wheeler County resident Bob Mair said, “Our community has worked for years to develop a vision for how the proposal to protect Sutton Mountain and convey the Golden Triangle to the City of Mitchell will improve our economic future. With Senator Merkley’s leadership we are one step closer to realizing this dream.”
“Sutton Mountain is a treasure for all Oregonians,” Houston said. “Elk, raptors, mule deer and many other species all thrive here. Eastern Oregon is filled with wonders, and it’s exciting to think that people generations from now will see the same wild Sutton Mountain we know today.”