5 Reasons to Protect Public Lands in Southeastern Oregon

Strong conservation by BLM will boost the economy, wildlife, communities

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5 Reasons to Protect Public Lands in Southeastern Oregon
The Owyhee Canyonlands in southeastern Oregon represent the largest intact, unprotected natural area in the Lower 48 states.
Gordon Kico

Editor’s Note: On May 31, 2019, the Bureau of Land Management released its draft resource management plan amendment.

In Malheur County, Oregon, nestled along the border with Idaho and Nevada, rest 5 million acres of spectacular canyons and desert. Most of this area—4.6 million acres—falls under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is expected to release a draft plan soon on how the land is to be used for the next two decades.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is working with the BLM and a range of stakeholders to ensure that the plan balances conservation of habitat and species with recreation.

BLM is incorporating public input into development of the plan and will seek more once it releases the document, a draft resource management plan amendment for the high-desert sage steppe, rugged volcanic tablelands, and deep river gorges, as well as the centerpiece of the region—the Owyhee Canyonlands.

The craggy red-rock canyons were carved over eons by wind and the Owyhee River flowing over layers of basalt rock laid down during ancient volcanic eruptions.

In the uplands, rolling sagebrush-covered hills sweep up to mountains draped in pinyon-juniper woodlands and wildflowers. Wildlife abounds, including sage-grouse, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, raptors, and songbirds.

Here are five features of this area that BLM should protect in its plan:

1. Vital wildlife habitat

Sage grouse
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the southern reaches of the Owyhee as one of the six most important areas in the nation for the imperiled greater sage-grouse. Oregon’s high desert is also home to over 200 other species, including golden eagles, the pygmy rabbit, which was brought back from the brink of extinction with help from the Oregon Zoo, and the fastest land mammal in North America— the pronghorn antelope.
Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

Hunters, anglers, and wildlife watchers cherish the Owyhee Canyonlands for their blue-ribbon trout streams, craggy volcanic canyons, and vast rolling hills.

Research from 2016 suggests that this landscape has exceptionally high potential as an ecological connector—a place where plants and animals can move across the landscape unimpeded by natural or man-made barriers. In part because this area is remote and intact, it has escaped development. But it might not for long without sound management that protects these public lands and ensures the wildlife here will continue to be sustained.

2. Clear night skies

Night sky
The southeastern corner of Oregon has one of the least light-polluted night skies in the country, routinely affording stunning views of the Milky Way. It ranks in the top 1 percent of all western U.S. lands for its dark skies—a key feature in a country where light pollution is increasing at a rate of two percent annually.
Gordon Kico

By protecting the wilderness character of the lands beneath the stars, the BLM can help keep light-producing development at bay in this spectacular region.

3. Epic hiking

Leslie Gulch
Leslie Gulch offers locals and visitors towering cliffs, streambeds, volcanic columns called hoodoos, and opportunities for solitude.
Bureau of Land Management

The gulch is traversed by the Oregon Desert Trail, a 750-mile unmarked—but well-trod—path through high-desert terrain. The eastern terminus of the trail is in Lake Owyhee State Park, in the heart of the southeastern Oregon planning area. From there, it meanders south and then west through lands managed mostly by the BLM.

4. Economic vitality

A 2016 study found that outdoor recreation contributes nearly $70 million to Malheur County’s economy and supports more than 700 jobs there. Statewide, nonmotorized “quiet” recreation generates $214 million in spending.
Nate Wilson

In southeastern Oregon, people come to raft and kayak the Class II to V+ rapids on the wild and scenic Owyhee River while viewing petroglyphs carved into the steep canyon walls. Sportsmen vie for a coveted tag to hunt California bighorn sheep. And most who live or visit here help sustain surrounding communities through spending on food, lodging, gear, and guides—all vital parts of the regional economy.

5. Solitude

Owyhee Canyons
Southeastern Oregon offers a vast expanse of unprotected public lands, with few paved roads and abundant opportunities to unplug and immerse in nature. However, development pressure—including from mining and oil and gas exploration—is threatening to permanently degrade the region’s clean water, open spaces, and wildlife habitat.
Gordon Kico

Pew is working with a diverse local coalition to ensure that the BLM’s forthcoming resource management plan amendment will reflect stakeholder input and safeguard these public lands. A public comment period for the use of this landscape will begin after the BLM releases the amendment.

Ken Rait directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ western lands initiative.

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