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12/19/2012

Owyhee, Land of Big Horizons

BB painted canyon

photo credit: Borden Beck 

In far Southeast Oregon lies much of the Owyhee River drainage, remote canyons and white water, but also broad upland plateaus beckon the eye with remarkable imagery. Most visitors are drawn to hike among the region’s spectacular geological formations or float the river corridor in spring, but there is a whole other world waiting up top.

Looking west from Coffee Pot Crater (one of the few “signed” places in the remote uplands), one can gaze across 60 miles of a sagebrush sea to distant Steens Mountion, an iconic snow clad fault block protected in 2000. To the east lies the Jordan Crater lava field, a flat black advance of rock flow recent enough to be largely barren of encroaching vegetation. The landscape in all directions embraces a string of Wilderness Study Areas and much more land of wilderness character in between. There are undoubtedly antelope and an unseen eagle soaring in the distance, a blue bellied lizard just out of reach and a cluster of buckwheat surviving in the crack of a rock, the threat of a rousing thunderstorm and expectation of a brilliant sunset, and the silence of nothing but a gentle breeze. This is a landscape where the solitude espoused by wilderness advocates can be found in abundance.

What is at stake in the Owyhee Canyonlands is a little over 2 million acres of unprotected wild sagebrush steppe, still home to imperiled sage grouse and the typical assemblage of desert denizens. The Owyhee remains one of the most remote places left outside of Alaska, with only one paved road bisecting it and the small community of Jordan Valley (pop. 179), serving as a hub for access. The region hosts a number of grazing allotments, but there are other management challenges as well, such as ongoing, unmanaged off-road vehicle incursions and threats of large scale mining and energy development.  These threats are what drive us to seek protection for this remarkable landscape.
BB owyhee uplands
photo credit: Borden Beck

The Owyhee Canyonlands remain a great candidate for national monument designation—stunning beauty, critical wildlife habitat, its sheer size and remoteness, and the varied recreational opportunities it affords, as well as the numerous threats to its ecological integrity. Monument designation could even provide an economic stimulus to a struggling local economy. The Owyhee is simply one of our last best places, still wild and still unprotected.

--Borden Beck, Oregon Chapter volunteer

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