By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) - Voters in a rural southeastern Oregon county have registered their opposition to proposals to expand federal protective status within 2.5 million acres of scenic canyonlands near the wildlife refuge recently occupied by anti-government militants.
The referendum follows calls by an environmental group to designate the area as a conservation zone, a move local ranchers and many others in the area perceive as a potential land grab by the federal government.
Of more than 6,300 ballots cast in the non-binding Malheur County referendum, 90 percent voted "no" on whether a national monument, wilderness or other conservation designations should be extended in the Owyhee Canyonlands area.
More than half the county's registered voters cast ballots in the March 8 election. Final results are to be presented to President Barack Obama, along with Oregon's governor, state lawmakers and congressional delegation, the county said.
"We just wanted to show what the local people wanted," county Commissioner Larry Wilson told Reuters on Thursday.
Environmental activists point to the sprawling Owyhee region - known for its red-rock canyons, rolling plains and untamed rivers - as one of largest stretches of still-unprotected wild land in the Lower 48 states. The Oregon Natural Desert Association has called for designating 2.5 million acres as a National Conservation Area, with 2 million acres set aside as wilderness.
Opponents of such proposals see the region as the latest flashpoint in a long-simmering conflict over federal regulation of public lands in the West.
The vote tally, first reported on Wednesday, came as participants in the six-week armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, roughly 30 miles west of the canyonlands, were indicted on additional criminal charges stemming from their protest.
The Malheur takeover was sparked by the return to prison of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires that spread to federal property and broader anger over U.S. control over cattle grazing and other industries in the region.
At least one supporter of the militants, B.J. Soper, a founding member of the Pacific Patriots Network, called the Owyhee controversy "a very hot button" in an open letter last month to elected officials.
There is no move afoot on Capitol Hill to designate the Owyhee as a wilderness, a level of protection requiring an act of Congress, though more than 1 million acres already is managed as de facto wilderness under prior law.
A U.S. Interior Department spokeswoman said there has been no discussion with the White House about national monument designation, which the president is empowered to make by executive fiat under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
Local concern over the Owyhee apparently was heightened when Obama designated 1.8 million acres in the California desert as national monument land last month.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Andrew Hay)