Steens Next 20

James Parsons   Website

by Senior Attorney Mac Lacy

Steens Mountain is an extraordinary place.

Known to the Northern Paiute as Tse’tse’ede, “the Cold One,” the mountain covers an ecologically distinctive, half-million acre landscape replete with specially protected public lands and rivers and a diversity of habitats essential to hundreds of species of fish and wildlife. Twenty years ago, in the Steens Act, Congress designated the first ever Cooperative Management and Protection Area to conserve the mountain for “future and present generations.” Managing the mountain under this innovative statute has not been without its challenges, but the law has kept its promise and continues to provide unique and important ways to protect and enjoy this inimitable landscape.

Here’s what I envision for Steens in the next twenty years.


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.


Wind and Birds in Quaking Aspen

Wind and Birds in Quaking Aspen


Aaron Tani, Sage Society Member

Aaron Tani, Sage Society Member

“It feels good to support ONDA on a monthly basis, because I know they never stop supporting our public lands. ONDA works to help make our lands a better place for the future, and I feel like I’m a part of that every month with my support.”

Wild Places

Dennis Hanson

The Steens Act preserved acres of public land as wilderness, defined as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled” by humans and which retains its “primeval character and influence.” The mountain also contains another 200,000 acres of wildlands, in Wilderness Study Areas and citizen-identified roadless areas, that should be added to the Steens Mountain Wilderness in the coming decades.

This will advance ONDA’s mission to conserve eight million acres of Oregon’s high desert and contribute to national conservation priorities to protect 30 percent of the United States by 2030.

A Sea of Sagebrush

Shannon Phifer   Website

Steens Mountain sits near the center of one of the largest remaining strongholds of sagebrush habitat in North America and serves as a vital connectivity corridor for Oregon’s sage-grouse populations. Building on the Steens Act’s first-of-its-kind Redband Trout Reserve, future legislation for places like Steens Mountain and the Owyhee Canyonlands should designate similar biological focus areas to preserve this imperiled bird’s best remaining habitats.

Prioritizing habitat conservation over human industry, these natural preserves would be the building blocks for conserving and recovering sage-grouse and dozens of other birds, small mammals and other creatures that call the sagebrush sea home.

Dark Skies

John Waller   Website

Forever free of industrial development (thanks to ONDA) and naturally blessed with an utter absence of light pollution, Steens Mountain will continue to be a haven for dark skies and stargazers. The mountain rises in one of the few places where visitors can still see the Milky Way clearly with the naked eye.

In the coming years, Congress should appropriate funds to allow federal agencies to consolidate landholdings on the mountain and ensure that Steens remains wild and undeveloped as a dark skies reserve.

Climate Refugia

James Parsons   Website

Steens Mountain is one of a handful of Climate Change Consideration Areas identified by federal land managers in sage-grouse conservation planning for Oregon. Climate change modeling shows that high elevation areas with limited habitat disturbance will provide the best habitat for the bird over the long-term.

In the next twenty years, healthy, intact landscapes like Steens will become critical as refugia for flora and fauna contending with earth’s changing climate. Management and future legislation should reflect and provide for that eventuality.

Livestock Free

Sage Brown   Website

Recognizing the fragility of the high desert, the Steens Act created the nation’s first-ever cow-free wilderness, establishing a 97,000-acre No Livestock Grazing Area. Grazing degrades wildlife habitat as cattle consume native plants, trample soils, increase erosion, and spread weeds and non-native grasses that replace sagebrush. As grazing is phased out over time, the mountain will flourish just as we’ve observed on neighboring Hart Mountain. And, as ONDA volunteers remove miles and miles of obsolete barbed-wire fences, the landscape will open to uninhibited movement by wildlife and humans alike.

Wild Rivers, Wild Fish

Mark Darnell   Website

The Steens Act designated Wildhorse and Kiger Creeks as Wild and Scenic Rivers and added Mud, Ankle, and South Fork of Ankle creeks to the existing Donner und Blitzen Wild and Scenic River system, originally designated in 1988. From seasonal streams to trout-bearing rivers, these waters are crucial in desert ecosystems.

Additional Steens Mountain creeks ought to be added in the coming decades — for example, Big Alvord, Pike and McCoy creeks on the mountain’s steep east face. And land managers should actively restore redband trout habitat, especially in the Donner und Blitzen River Redband Trout Reserve, where these unique native fish are a reminder of the Pleistocene connection between the lake basins of eastern Oregon and the Snake and Columbia Rivers.