Wednesday, 19 Feb 2003

PORTLAND, Ore.

I’m writing this journal entry as I speed northward on Highway 97. No, I haven’t taken multi-tasking to new levels. Fortunately for me and everyone else on the road, Bill Marlett, executive director of Oregon Natural Desert Association, is driving.

A few wispy clouds are fading on the eastern horizon this morning, while to the west, the Cascade Mountains are buried in denser, darker clouds. My fingers are crossed that the mountains are squeezing some ever-precious moisture out of the sky. This winter has been particularly mild and, at this rate, Oregonians are in for a very dry summer.

Deschutes River Canyon.

Today’s destination is Portland, where desert wilderness activists from all over Oregon are converging to discuss current and future desert-protection efforts. Participants vary from large national groups like the Wilderness Society to small, grassroots organizations like ONDA. No matter their size, these organizations all share a vision of over 6 million acres of federally-designated wilderness in Oregon’s high desert.

Although the meeting requires a three-hour drive, Bill and I have the benefit of some spectacular scenery. We are currently crossing the Deschutes River and entering the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. As a steelhead- and trout-fishing devotee, I crane my neck to pick out any sign of fish in the waters below, but I spot nothing. Nothing, I should say, except a beautiful and powerful river that, over millions of years, has created impressive columnar basalt-lined canyons.

Bighorn sheep.

Sadly, in many cases, the Deschutes River’s loveliness is only skin deep. Despite the river’s grandeur, it has been subjected to numerous abuses over the past century. Salmon and steelhead that were once common in the river no longer reach their traditional spawning grounds due to the building of the Pelton-Round Butte Dam in 1959. Bighorn sheep, which were once native to the Deschutes River Canyon, disappeared during the past century due to over-hunting and disease from livestock.

Despite these injustices, there is hope. In the past several years, bighorn sheep have been reintroduced to the Deschutes and other areas throughout Oregon’s high desert. Currently, there is an effort underway to return steelhead and sockeye and chinook salmon to their traditional spawning grounds above the dam. More good news: Two years ago, a large area along the Deschutes River was acquired to ensure the preservation of fish and wildlife habitat.

Since the dam was built, steelhead and salmon no longer return to Steelhead Falls.

Today in Portland, we will talk about how to preserve those 6 million acres, including portions of the Deschutes River Canyon. Specifically, we will discuss a desert wilderness inventory that was conducted by dozens of volunteers last year and covered over 750,000 acres of public lands.

These and other efforts give me hope that we will succeed in preserving Oregon’s remaining desert wilderness area. Perhaps we will also succeed in re-wilding areas like the Deschutes River, which hold so much potential for the sustenance of Oregon’s native biodiversity.