Protecting Oregon’s Wild Owyhee

Confluence of the North Fork Owyhee and Little West Owyhee River, by Devin Dahlgren

Corie Harlan is the Owyhee Coordinator Oregon Natural Desert Association.  We funded ONDA’s Campaign to Secure Lasting Protection for Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands and Hart-Sheldon Landscape in September, 2018 for the second time.  

Make your voice heard during this planning process to keep threats at bay.

Sweating profusely with an obscenely overstuffed bag swaying behind me, four words rang through my mind: never underestimate the Owyhee.
Apparently, it’d been a bit too long since I’d overnighted in Owyhee country, as I hadn’t thought twice about including my comfy chair and an extra beverage while packing for this ‘short’ and ‘quick’ backpacking trip, just a 4-mile out-and-back segment from Birch Creek to Greeley Hot Spring.
On the ground, it was clear that I’d failed to account for ‘the Owyhee factor.’
As I picked my way through one giant boulder field after another, I had ample time to contemplate just how fortunate Americans are to have a legacy like our public lands.
With striking geology, abundant wildlife, profound solitude and the darkest night skies, Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands embodies the best of our heritage. Home to hundreds of sacred Native American sites, the Owyhee is part of a rich living tribal culture. It also sustains a way of life for local communities and forms an integral part of Malheur County’s economy.
Its sheer wildness leaves an indelible mark on anyone who spends time here.
Hiker Logan Boyles recently completed the Oregon Desert Trail. His most memorable moment of the 750-mile journey? Hiking into the pinnacle canyon after gaining the ridge at Juniper Gulch.
“I sat down to rest where the canyon flattens and widens a bit. After I finished filtering water and digging through my pack, I stood up, looked around, and saw I was surrounded on all sides by beautiful and ominous rock formations and pinnacles. It was so breathtaking that I teared up.”
It is a precarious time for our beloved Owyhee. The current administration is looking to undermine bedrock environmental laws and streamline industrial development on public lands. Natural gas exploration is increasing in Malheur County.[1] The permitting process for a large, industrial gold mine in Vale – Oregon’s first in decades – continues to move forward[2], while much of the nearby Canyonlands is known to have significant mining potential for gold, silver and uranium.[3] Just an hour away, Boise is one of the fastest growing places in the entire U.S.[4]
With these threats amassing on the Owyhee’s border, protecting this corner of southeast Oregon takes on new urgency.
Steadfast in our commitment to the Owyhee, ONDA is building on five decades of effort to protect the area and working across the state and with the local community to make the need to permanently protect this place – and the broad public support for strong conservation management – abundantly clear to Senators Wyden and Merkley.
As you can imagine, a divisive political climate makes advancing legislative solutions quite challenging. However, there is still important work to be done for this wild place.
Right now, ONDA and conservation advocates are deeply engaged in a process that will create the blueprint for how nearly five million acres in southeastern Oregon – including awe-inspiring places like Leslie GulchThree Forks and Birch Creek – are managed.
Until the Owyhee has the conservation measures it so richly deserves, the Southeastern Oregon Resource Management Plan Amendment process presents the best opportunity to protect the natural qualities we value. The Bureau of Land Management must seek public input on this plan. So it’s time for people who love the Owyhee Canyonlands to weigh in. As concerned public lands advocates, we can safeguard sage-grouse habitat, decide where off-road vehicles should and should not travel, and preserve critical wild desert places to camp, hike and bird.
Spend time enjoying the public lands that belong to you and humble you. Let these landscapes bring you to tears. But don’t let them leave you speechless.

Add your voice.  Take part in desert planning. Email or visit

[1] Argus Observer, April 27, 2018: “Exploratory drilling gets green light in Malheur Co.”
[2] Argus Observer, May 24, 2018: “Gold mine expected to rake in ‘exceptional cash flows’”
[3] Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, September, 2016: “Metallic and Industrial Mineral Resource Potential of Southern and Eastern Oregon”
[4] Idaho Statesman, March 1, 2018: “Boise is fastest-growing area in the U.S.”