20 Facts about Steens

Renee Patrick

The Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act was enacted twenty years ago, on October 30, 2000. As the Steens Act “turns 20” in 2020, here is a top twenty list of facts about this wonderful, inimitable mountain in southeastern Oregon.



Jeremy Fox on Steens Landscape

Jeremy Fox on Steens Landscape


Carl Axelsen, member since 1999

Carl Axelsen, member since 1999

You folks at ONDA really have your stuff together. Such a well-planned opportunity to comment, since figuring out how to connect with the gummint is off-putting. You make it work for me.


Craig Terry, ONDA member and stewardship volunteer

Craig Terry, ONDA member and stewardship volunteer

“The people I have had the privilege to share time with each season keep me volunteering again and again. Who else but those ONDA staff leaders would make fresh coffee at dawn each morning or pack a watermelon all day to serve as a reward under a juniper in a steep canyon?” Craig, who grew up in northwestern Nevada, says ONDA connects him with places he loves and a mission he believes in. “My grandfather and his father put up wire fences for their ranching needs. Taking out barbed wire sort of completes a circle for me.”

About Steens Mountain

Jim Davis

Less than a million years ago, alpine glaciers carved four dramatic and stunning gorges in Steens that descend thousands of feet to the desert floor.

Often mistaken for a mountain range, Steens is actually one contiguous monolith — perhaps the largest fault block mountain in North America, stretching some 30 miles long and reaching a mile high.

The Northern Paiute name for the mountain is Tse’tse’ede, meaning “The Cold One.”

Award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin described Steens as “that strange ridge standing across the sagebrush range” in her volume of poetry and original sketches dedicated to the Steens Mountain country.

You can look out over four states from high points along Steens’ rigdgeline: Oregon, Nevada, Idaho and California.

Steens is home to at least six endemic plant species—four wildflowers, a thistle, and a bluegrass—that are a colorful reminder of the rich diversity of habitats on the mountain.

Steens is one of only two places in southeastern Oregon where American pika, an adorable but imperiled alpine critter, make their home.

The mountain contains essential habitat and a vital connectivity corridor for Greater Sage-grouse, in fact the only corridor that connects the bird’s western and eastern populations in the state.

About the Steens Legislation

Sage Brown   Website

Congress established a half-million acre Cooperative Management and Protection Area in 2000 “to conserve, protect, and manage the long-term ecological integrity of Steens Mountain for future and present generations.”

The law established more than 170,000 acres as the Steens Mountain Wilderness, of which more than 95,000 acres of the most sensitive and pristine habitat are designated as livestock-free, the first and only legislated livestock-free wilderness in the country.

This visionary act also created the first ever Redband Trout Reserve to improve stream health and fish habitat.

The Steens Act designated three Wild and Scenic Rivers on the mountain — Wildhorse Creek and Lake, Little Wildhorse Creek, and Kiger Creek — and added three new segments — Ankle Creek, South Ankle Creek and Mud Creek — to the existing Donner und Blitzen Wild and Scenic River. Steens now features 105 miles of federally protected rivers and streams.

The Department of the Interior included Steens in its National Landscape Conservation System, established by Congress in 2009 to protect nationally significant landscapes recognized for their outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values.

About ONDA’s Stewardship of Steens

Sage Brown   Website

ONDA volunteers have spent years completing deferred maintenance on trails in the Steens Mountain Wilderness that overlap with the Oregon Desert Trail, a 750-mile route that connects all of the iconic landscapes in Oregon’s high desert.

ONDA volunteers have also surveyed about 750,000 acres of public land on and around Steens, identifying about 545,000 acres with wilderness characteristics.

Between 2000 and 2017, ONDA volunteers pulled 125 tons of obsolete barbed wire off of Steens—equivalent to the weight of 10 school buses—to provide safer habitat for wildlife like wildlife like Greater Sage-grouse and pronghorn.

In 2009, ONDA blew the whistle on the “Burnt Car Road” illegally bladed into the Steens Mountain Wilderness. Under an ensuing legal settlement, volunteers worked with federal land managers to repair the damage and restore pristine high elevation meadows.

In 2015, a federal judge agreed with ONDA that agency land managers could not drive cross-country in Wilderness Study Areas on Steens to conduct juniper removal. Under the Steens Act, these sensitive habitats require more environmentally protective approaches to vegetation management.’

In 2016, ONDA successfully blocked a proposal to build an industrial-scale energy facility on Steens, protecting essential winter habitat and population connectivity for the imperiled Greater Sage-grouse.

In 2019, a federal appeals court threw out a motorized travel plan for Steens that would have created hundreds of miles of obscure or nonexistent routes that threatened wilderness values and intact sagebrush plant communities. This ruling affirmed decades of citizen-led efforts to demonstrate the importance of Steens Mountain and ensures that the mountain will continue to be protected.