Featured Wilderness: Oregon's Sutton Mountain

Over the past few years, this space has featured the new Spring Basin Wilderness, which was approved by Congress in 2009, and the now-pending legislation to protect Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven. Today, through the dedicated work of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, yet more land adjacent to Oregon's iconic John Day River is poised to receive the gold standard of public land protection.

The John Day River is an anomaly among high desert rivers in the American West, most of which were dammed sometime during the 20th Century. Not the John Day. From its headwaters high in the Strawberry Mountains, to its confluence with the Columbia River, the John Day flows for 500 miles unimpeded by dams. This relatively unique characteristic makes it the third-longest free-flowing river in the continental United States.

Much of the Lower John Day flows through proposed wilderness areas, while the upper river provides critical habitat for the largest and most diverse native fish populations in Oregon. Among the species that call this river home are endangered bull trout and summer steelhead, along with Chinook salmon, redband trout, and westslope cutthroat trout. The entire river's steelhead population is genetically native, and it's recognized as a “salmon stronghold.” The John Day is not only popular with fish, but boaters, hikers, and hunters and anglers as well.

The latest proposal for the John Day basin would designate as wilderness four areas—Sutton Mountain, Pat's Cabin, Painted Hills, and Dead Dog—totaling more than 58,000 acres. This part of the John Day has seen human habitation for at least 8000 years. Remarkably, much of it remains just as the earliest Native Americans experienced it. The three largest areas (Sutton, Pat's Cabin, and Painted Hills) flank Bridge Creek, a tributary of the John Day River. The Bridge Creek Basin is renowned for its geologic formations, and gorgeous stratified soils, laid down over tens of millions of years. It is also intensively monitored by federal scientists due to its high fish productivity, making the protection of its surrounding uplands all the more important.

Partially due to its geology, this area boasts several species of flowering plants that grow nowhere else on Earth, and other rare plants such as the Arrow-leaf thelypody, purple sage, and Pallid milkweed. While much of the land is semi-arid high desert, higher elevations give way to forests of Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir. The landscape surrounding Bridge Creek is truly a testament to the remarkable diversity of our public lands.

This rich floral diversity provides important uplands habitat for threatened summer steelhead and Chinook salmon as well as other sensitive species including bald eagles, John Day pincushion cactus, Western toad, pygmy rabbits, and ferruginous hawks. It also provides crucial habitat for a litany of diverse species including the wiley chuckar, fast-as-the-wind pronghorn antelope, majestic golden eagles, and hearty mule deer and Rocky Mountain elk.

Each of these proposed wilderness areas have been painstakingly vetted with local stakeholders. Included in the proposal are six land-exchanges, designed to solve public access issues and make the interspersed public and private lands more manageable. The wilderness designations and land-exchanges are supported by numerous local landowners, residents and business owners, and user groups. The National Park Service, which manages the Painted Hills National Monument (part of which would be designated wilderness by this proposal) has voiced support for this proposal, as have the whitewater rafting and boating community, the Redmond Chapter of Oregon Hunters Association, and other hunting, angling, rafting and conservation groups. The success of this effort demonstrates how varied interests can come together in support of wilderness designations throughout the West.

It is essential that we recognize opportunities such as this to designate new wilderness, and work diligently to make them a reality. Just as we can experience the basalt cliffs of Sutton Mountain, or watch elk graze in Pat's Cabin as the first Americans did, we owe it to our children and grandchildren to pass along the same opportunity. We look forward to working with Oregon's congressional delegation to ensure that this legacy, born along the banks of the unbridled John Day, endures for all time.