Battle for protection of Owyhee Canyonlands escalates

Photo of Owyhee Canyonlands
Courtesy of ONDA

Oregon is home to many stunning geological features and a vast array of ecological beauty. From the rocky coastline to the peak of Mount Hood, the slopes of the dunes, the depths of the Columbia River Gorge and Crater Lake to all the old-growth forest in between, there are miles upon miles of breathtaking views and unique ecosystems to explore. However, in southeastern Oregon, not too far from the Idaho border lies the Owyhee Canyonlands, considered one of Oregon’s hidden gems.

The Owyhee Canyonlands spans nearly two million acres of this southeastern corner. Coated in sagebrush and blooming with wildflowers, the canyon’s breathtaking landscape is unlike any other in Oregon. The community surrounding the Owyhee has ignited a movement to protect and preserve the wild and agricultural bounty of the canyonlands.

Nearly 200 wildlife species have made their homes alongside the Owyhee River, in the jagged outcroppings and among the stunning canyon walls. The ecosystem is home to one of the largest herds of California Bighorn Sheep, the at-risk Greater sage grouse and 28 plant species found nowhere else in the world. Above the high desert stretches a sky that has been granted Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park status, recognizing the Canyonlands as one of the best places to see the stars in the lower 48 states. 

The Owyhee region has long been home to a varied community that lives in tandem with the land’s natural resources. According to the Oregon National Desert Association (ONDA), the canyons have shaped the Indigenous cultures of the Northern Paiute, Bannock and Shoshone tribes. The river and valleys have also served as a meeting place for Columbia Plateau and Snake River Plain tribes, playing a critical role in tribal traditions and hunting and gathering practices throughout the region. Over 500 archaeological sites throughout the Owyhee hold physical reminders of the area’s history. Wagon roads from the 1800s and the remaining buildings of Birch Creek Historic Ranch are traces of the Basque herders and ranchers who later moved into the area.

The Burns-Paiute and Shoshone Tribes remain active participants in the Owyhee landscape. Ranchers have made their homes in the grassy plains and fisherpeople travel near and far to take advantage of the Owyhee River’s pristine conditions. 

In 2015, concerns about the future of the Owyhee Canyon began to circulate in the environmentalist community. From their nearby headquarters in Bend, ONDA proposed designating nearly 2.5 million acres of Canyonlands in Malheur County as a National Monument. Portland-based footwear brand Keen supported the movement, propelling it into the local spotlight. 

The ranching community living on and near the Owyhee Canyon was quick to express their disdain for the idea. Local leaders put the issue to a vote, and nearly 90% of Malheur County citizens who participated in the vote were against the monument designation. 

Steve Russel, who helped found the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition (OBSC) in 2016 and continues to serve as their chairman, was quoted in the Statesman Journal after the vote.

“Now that the people of Malheur County have spoken loudly and clearly against a 2.5 million acre federal monument, it’s time for Gov. Brown and our U.S. senators to speak out against it as well,” said Russel.

Statesman Journal also spoke with Elias Eiguren, a fifth-generation cattleman living and working on the land surrounding the Owyhee Canyon, who serves as the treasurer of the OBSC.

“We have dirt under our fingernails, working here every day,” Eiguren said. “We were born here, we live here and ultimately will die here. If it’s good for the land it will be good for us. We don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt the land. We think our voice should have a certain amount of priority over folks that don’t live here.”

OBSC continued to voice their concerns about the restrictions a monument designation, or other federal protection, could place on their long-held grazing permits, water rights and transportation abilities. They drafted their own proposal — the Malheur County Healthy Working Ecosystems Act Legislative Concept — aimed at “preserving the multiple-uses of our federal public lands and creating strategies to deal with future pressures from growing human populations and climate change.” 

Environmental groups like the Northwest Sport Fishing Association recognized the OBSC’s concerns but worried that preexisting protections and goodwill declarations are not permanent nor strong enough to counter developer’s interests. 

“When big money and development wants something and you have this thin wall of protection that we currently have up, that can easily be removed,” said Dan Cherry, spokesman for the association. 

The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries released a report in 2015 identifying gold, uranium and other mineral deposits in the area that could have high economic potential for miners. The land surrounding the canyon is being explored for gas and oil extraction opportunities. Unregulated real estate development and unmanaged recreation also pose a threat to the land.

Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley implemented aspects of OBSC’s vision in their Senate Bill 1890, known as the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act. OBSC did not respond to a request for comment. And though their website states that they support proposed legislation of the same name, it also states that they do not support monument designation.  

The proposed legislation reflects years of discussion between the ranching community, conservation organizations, tribal nations, recreationists and Oregonians across the state. Many of the disputes and trepidations were mollified by improved information and community collaboration. 

Tim Davis, a longtime resident of Ontario, Oregon on the north side of the canyon spoke about his experience at an event raising awareness for the Owyhee Canyonlands’ plight.

“My journey from skeptic to conservationist exemplifies the power of personal exploration and community engagement in protecting our natural heritage,” Davis said. 

Taking the many things this land means to different people and communities into account has shaped the resulting legislation. Contrary to many concerns, national monuments do protect existing rights. Thus, grazing permits, water rights and public and commercial enterprises would not be impacted. The current bill ensures that, while half of the 2.5 million acres would be designated as wilderness areas, the other half would be maintained as grazing land, maintained and adjusted seasonally to achieve ecological health and avoid degradation. 

The legislation would create a locally-based group composed of community leaders who would share stewardship of the canyon. The Burns-Paiute and Shoshone Tribes would each be guaranteed a representative in the group. The act would also increase the size of the Burns Paiute Reservation.

Gary McKinney is part of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of Duck Valley and has worked with the ONDA to promote the protection of the Owyhee lands. He spoke to Karly Foster of the ONDA about his motivations.

“We have held the Owyhee as sacred lands long before it was called ‘Owyhee.’ We need the protection of the Owyhee Canyonlands for the protection of our sacred sites and we are here to support that,” McKinney said. “This protection of the Owyhee Canyonlands is (crucial) to the way that we want to preserve our lifestyles and teach them to our next seven generations. And to us, that is more important than anything.”  

The Oregon chapters of the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and other environmental advocacy organizations joined the ONDA to create the Protect the Owyhee Canyonlands campaign to spread awareness about the proposed legislation and help push it through Congress. 

Environment Oregon, a branch of the national organization Environment America, got involved with the campaign as a part of their broader mission to protect and restore America’s wildlife to enable a healthier, more enriching future. When they first heard of the Protect the Owyhee Canyonlands movement, they knew that bringing the issue to the attention of voters in Oregon’s more populated areas would help the campaign achieve its goals. 

“We can help boost your local efforts by bringing the Willamette Valley along for the ride,” Environment Oregon’s Conservation Advocate Justin Boyles said. “So many people don’t know it exists, even fewer realize that it’s in danger. How many of those people know we have an opportunity to protect it?”

Environment Oregon’s experience with similar campaigns and emphasis on grassroots organizing through events and dialogue have helped spread the word about Owyhee throughout the rest of Oregon. 

“80% of Oregonians support some kind of protection. Our main goal is to back the community-driven legislation,” Boyle said.

President Biden has stated a goal to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, and the Owyhee Canyonlands are the largest remaining conservation opportunity in the American Northwest. Passing Senate Bill 1890 is the easiest way for him to meet that goal. So far, the act has received bipartisan support, but its future in Congress is uncertain. 

The ONDA traveled to Washington D.C. along with Tribal leaders from the Owyhee area to speak with senators and interest groups about the importance of protecting the canyon. Environment Oregon plans to return to D.C. in April to continue these efforts. The bounty of Owyhee wildlife, the community-driven nature of the effort to protect it and the opportunity to safeguard one of the few remaining stretches of wilderness in the northwest make Protect the Owyhee Canyonlands’ mission unique. Those wanting to add their voices to the campaign can visit to learn more about upcoming events and other ways to get involved.

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