Friday, 21 Feb 2003

BEND, Ore.

Today is one of those days that reinforces that mine is a dream job. Fresh off a late night teaching a class about Steens Mountain, I am off with Laurel Hickok, ONDA’s assistant wildlands coordinator, and Mark Hanschka, a volunteer and capable pilot, to fly over Steens Mountain and the Owyhee Canyonlands as part of ONDA’s Wilderness Research and Rescue Project.

Owyhee River.

Today, Ma Nature has blessed us with infinite blue skies and mind-bending visibility. Taking off, we fly over Newberry Volcanic National Monument; soon after passing over Paulina Peak, we get a glimpse of Steens Mountain on the horizon, over 100 miles to the east. Behind us the numerous snow-capped peaks of the Cascade Mountains overlook Oregon’s dry side — a landscape with some of the largest tracts of unprotected wilderness in the lower 48.

Oregon’s desert lands, characterized by sage-steppe and juniper forest ecosystems, are concentrated in the southeast but can be found throughout the state east of the Cascade Range. Most of these lands are owned by the public and managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the nation’s largest landlord.

Birds-eye view of the Owyhee canyonlands.

Oregon contains approximately 13.4 million acres of publicly-owned desert land. ONDA’s staff and volunteers have determined that over 6 million acres of this land qualify as wilderness, but less than half are currently protected under that designation or as a Wilderness Study Area. Under federal wilderness inventory and study procedures, the BLM is required to consider any new information suggesting that an area qualifies as wilderness. The purpose of ONDA’s Wilderness Research and Rescue Project is to organize citizens to inventory BLM lands in Oregon that are currently unprotected, and to document and submit information outlining which of those lands meet federal guidelines for wilderness.

Last year, which was the first year of the project, we focused on public lands throughout the Andrews Resource Area, which includes spectacular areas such as Steens Mountain, the Alvord Desert, the Pueblo Mountains, the Sheepshead Mountains, and the Trout Creek Mountains. The effort involved over two dozen volunteers and led to the documentation of wilderness values on over 750,000 acres of public lands. The inventory results were compiled into a 400-page report with over 1,500 photos, which we then submitted to BLM for consideration. The BLM has accepted the report and is currently using it to develop transportation and wilderness recommendations for nearly 1 million acres of public land.

Burrowing owl.

Today, we are flying over some of the areas we recommended for wilderness last year as well as areas in the Owyhee Canyonlands region that we plan to inventory this summer. The Owyhee region, overlapping into Idaho and Nevada, is the largest unprotected roadless area in the lower 48 states. It is home to rare fish, wildlife, and plant species, including the world’s largest herd of California bighorn sheep, sage grouse, song birds, redband trout, longnose snakes, rare pygmy rabbits, and seven species of bats. The area also contains unique geologic features and innumerable archeological and historical sites.

Right now, we are flying from the headwaters of the West Fork of the Owyhee to where it joins the main branch of the Owyhee River just south of Three Forks. The view from the plane dwarfs the canyon walls below, which tower a thousand feet over the river in some places. This is a perspective that is new for me and my heart leaps as my mind recognizes places where I have stood before. At the same time, I am overtaken by awe of how much country is spread before me; enough country that it would take a lifetime to investigate every crack and crevice.

This is part of every American’s natural heritage. It is one of the few remaining places where a person could easily forget that there ever was an industrial revolution. This is wilderness as envisioned by Congress when it passed the Wilderness Act in 1964 to “assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States.”

It is difficult to fathom that the thread of river below is a part of the extensive and elaborate whole known as the Columbia River Basin. The Owyhee River, which in the not-so-distant past supported runs of salmon, makes its way north through these spectacular canyons before joining with the Snake River and then the Columbia River on its voyage to the sea.

Thanks to the hard work of dozens of volunteers and activists, I’m confident this area will become wilderness in my lifetime. If you are interested in lending a hand, I hope to see you on a Wilderness Research and Rescue trip this summer. More information is available on ONDA’s website. Happy trails.