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WASHINGTON, D.C.-Legislation that would establish a one million-acre wilderness area on and around Steens Mountain in Eastern Oregon and pay area ranchers in exchange for giving their land to the federal government passed the Senate unanimously last night, and is now heading to President Clinton for his signature.

Passage of the Steens Mountain bill is said to be one of the biggest accomplishments of the year for a united Oregon congressional delegation. The measure outlasted criticism from the Clinton administration, Western conservatives and environmentalists, though dozens of changes were made to the bill over the past few months. The vote eases fears that condos and vacation resorts could someday be built on the mountain.

The Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, written by Hood River-based republican Rep. Greg Walden, creates a wilderness area in a high desert area of southeastern Oregon cherished for its remote beauty. Under the negotiated deal, about 172,000 acres will become protected wilderness, including 100,000 acres where no grazing will be permitted. Mining and geothermal development will be barred on about 1.2 million acres near the desert mountain.

The legislation trades nearly 18,000 acres of private land for 100,000 acres of government land to eliminate a checkerboard pattern of private and public ownership and to ensure that the higher-elevation land now owned by ranchers is protected. Private landowners in the area will get about $5.2 million in exchange for giving up their property.

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