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09/13/2011

Protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands

Owyhee_02.Mike McCurry The Owyhee Canyonlands fall in three states: Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada (Image: Sierra Club/Mike McCurry)

Jagged rock formations, sagebrush steppe, and strikingly colored desert characterize the Owyhee Canyonlands. Located in the southeast corner of Oregon, the area provides an outdoor experience unlike any other in the state. The whitewater of the Owyhee River system draws river runners from across the country and the remote canyons provide homes for some of the nation’s largest herds of bighorn sheep.

The Owyhee Canyonlands are a national treasure, and truly one of the most remote and beautiful places in the United States. This landscape contains one of the largest unprotected deserts in the West at the intersection of the Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada state borders. In fact, the Owyhees are home to over two million acres of the largest unprotected roadless area in the continental United States.

For decades politicians, citizens and scientists have recognized the need for permanent protection for the Owyhee Canyonlands. Yet, today this area remains vulnerable to the destructive effects of irresponsible off-road vehicle use and the development of large open-pit gold mines. These very real threats could mar this one-of-a-kind wonder forever.

Right now our Congressional delegation has the opportunity speak up for protections for this special place. Senators can and should step outside of the Congressional gridlock and support designation of the Owyhee Canyonlands as a national monument by President Obama.

Under the Antiquities Act, President Obama has the authority to designate national monuments. For over 100 years presidents—both Democrat and Republican—have used the Antiquities Act to rise above the politics of their day and better protect federally-owned lands and waters for future generations. Iconic desert lands like Bryce, Zion, Arches, Death Valley and even the Grand Canyon are here today because past presidents acted to protect their natural, cultural and historic worth.

National monument protection for the Owyhee Canyonlands would open the way to economic growth in one of the most rural parts of the state. Most national monuments have become tourist destinations over time, attracting and educating millions of Americans every year. Recent research by Headwaters Economics has shown that the creation of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southern Oregon drew new residents, tourists and businesses—jobs grew by 16% and real personal income grew by 19%.

Monument designation for the Owyhee Canyonlands would increase recreational interest and help grow tourism locally while at the same time protecting important habitat for bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and sage grouse, as well as outstanding recreational rivers and fishing opportunities.

The Canyonlands’ role as one of the largest intact desert systems in the West is invaluable, and will become only more so as precipitation and migration patterns shift with warming temperatures. Protecting large undisturbed areas like the Canyonlands and connecting them to other protected spaces will give wildlife the room they need to adjust and survive in changing conditions.

Now is the time for our Congressional to push for national monument protections for the Owyhee Canyonlands before it is too late.

Owyhee River SW Idaho Nicholas D. 
The Owyhee River in southwest Idaho (Image: Nicholas D. via Flickr Nick/KC7CBF)

Guest column by Heidi Dahlin, Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club Oregon Chapter.

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