35 Years of Desert Care

Authors: Jeremy Austin, Mac Lacy, Gena Goodman-Campbell and Lace Thornberg  |  Published: October 21, 2022

This is a story about people who noticed a problem and chose to act.

It starts in 1987, in a tavern in Bend, Oregon, where a hodgepodge collection of 20 or so folks –  some students, teachers, doctors, naturalists and others – gathered one Thursday evening. A shared love of wild desert spaces had drawn them together, and the realization that the high desert lands and waters they loved had no group dedicated to their protection was spurring them to action.

They could have ignored the call and hoped that someone else would come to the desert’s aid. Instead, these public lands enthusiasts mobilized, brimming with moxie and bravado. As founding ONDA member and current staff member Craig Miller put it: “So what if we were up against some political obstacles, including our President (Regan), our Congressman (Denny Smith), and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association? Who cared if we didn’t have money or experience? What was it to us that most people didn’t even know Oregon had a desert, and those who did considered it a wasteland?”

Dubbing themselves the “Oregon Natural Desert Association,” this group of people – which you are a vital member of today – became the heart and soul of Oregon’s desert conservation movement.

As we offer this brief look back at ONDA’s origins and ongoing evolution, decorated with stanzas from “The Ballad of ONDA” authored by founding ONDA member Alice Elshoff, we hope you’ll be impressed by this small sample of what the organization has undertaken so far and excited as you think about what can be accomplished next.

This blog post was originally published in the Fall+Winter 2022 edition of Desert Ramblings.


Time Lapse: a night at Canyon Camp in six seconds

Time Lapse: a night at Canyon Camp in six seconds


Julie Weikel on Wilderness

Julie Weikel on Wilderness


The Land Between: The Greater Hart-Sheldon Region

The Land Between: The Greater Hart-Sheldon Region

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge Fence Pull

They'd never heard of ONDA: Late 80s – early 90s

It was back in the winter of 88; when the BLM began to celebrate; they’d finished their study; they’d seen the wild land; all they could see from a government van…and they’d never heard of ON-DA!

ONDA formed as the Bureau of Land Management undertook a congressionally-directed inventory of wilderness lands in eastern Oregon. Concerned that much of Oregon’s high desert had been overlooked by the agency’s inventory, the founding members of ONDA set out to conduct one of their own. This ad-hoc group of desert advocates hit the ground, hiking and mapping their way through eastern Oregon public lands, documenting the wilderness and other values of the high desert. Their “Sage Proposal” recommended five million acres for Wilderness designation in Oregon — more than double the acres that the bureau identified as having wilderness character. Not bad for a bunch of rookies.

With that effort underway, the group began looking at how to address one of the most widespread impacts to desert habitat: livestock grazing.

They began by urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove livestock grazing from the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, where grazing was endangering sensitive populations of pronghorn antelope and sage-grouse. In 1994, the Service determined that livestock were incompatible with the Refuge’s purpose and were removed, initiating one of the most important passive restoration experiments and scientific research initiatives ever conducted in the Great Basin.

As further evidence of a willingness to tackle thorny – or shall we say barbed – issues, ONDA soon launched into another major effort to help desert wildlife: removing all of the now unnecessary barbed wire fence from Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. These “barb wire round ups” became a tradition that brought desert-loving people together each year for the next two decades. The end result – one of the largest fence-free landscapes in the American West – was well worth every drop of blood and sweat.

Steens Mountain Wilderness

Barb Rumer

Spring Basin Wilderness

Jim Davis

Building Beaver Dam Analogs

A job for ONDA: the late 90s to 2010

Not a wolfy grass in sight, the streams all dead; wasn’t nothing growin’ in the watershed; cows in the basins, cows in the streams; there were cows in the uplands, even shittin’ in the Steens…looked like a job for ONDA.

In this era, ONDA focused on securing Wilderness designation for the most significant public lands within Oregon’s high desert and expanding our hands-on habitat restoration work to include stream restoration, trail maintenance, and more.

After years of ground work, ONDA led a historic collaborative effort to establish the Steens Mountain Wilderness, the first wilderness area in Oregon’s high desert.

After Steens, ONDA led two more successful efforts to establish the Oregon Badlands Wilderness and Spring Basin Wilderness.

Another major milestone during this era occurred when ONDA overturned a Bush-era “no more wilderness” policy and won a landmark case that required the Bureau of Land Management to acknowledge wilderness values across 7.8 million acres of public lands and to assess future management to protect these areas.

ONDA also protected 200 miles of the Wild and Scenic Owyhee River system when successful legal work led to the removal of livestock that were damaging redband trout streams and streamside areas that today are rich with willows and birds.

And, we began to sink our teeth into beaver-based riparian restoration, working with partners to install beaver dam analogues and restore habitat for salmon and steelhead on the John Day Basin’s Bridge Creek, transforming the stream into resilient habitat with thriving populations of fish and wildlife over the course of just a handful of years.

On set for "Wild Owyhee"

On the Oregon Desert Trail

Christof Teuscher

Restoring Pine Creek Conservation Area

They haven’t heard the last from ONDA: 2011 - 2019

ONDA won’t be stopped, were in it to the end; we’ve got a great campaign to save our desert friends; and we’re working all together with other desert rats; and you will definitely be seeing a Big Protection Act…Oh they haven’t heard the last from ONDA. 

In this era, ONDA engaged in numerous creative ventures to raise awareness about the Owyhee Canyonlands, Sutton Mountain, the Greater Hart-Sheldon, and the high desert as a whole. Thanks to this work, Oregonians from across the state and Americans around the country went from saying “the Ah-wah-what?” to “We need to save the Owyhee!”

In 2011, ONDA established the Oregon Desert Trail, an audacious, aspirational 750-mile route designed to introduce people to the spectacular natural areas of the Oregon’s dry side and invite them to take part in its conservation and care.

In 2016, ONDA successfully blocked a proposed industrial energy development atop Steens Mountain in an area crucial to over-wintering sage-grouse. In 2017 ONDA launched the Oregon Desert Land Trust to complement our public lands work with private lands conservation. And, in 2019, after a decade-long challenge, ONDA secured a court order barring more than a hundred miles of roads that would have sliced across Steens.

The amount of hands-on restoration ONDA could complete grew with the help of over 500 volunteers a year who planted thousands of trees and restored dozens of miles of desert streams like the South Fork Crooked River, Hay Creek, and Pine Creek Conservation Area in Central Oregon and the John Day River Basin, and removed the last barbed wire fence from Steens Mountain Wilderness.

Tribal Stewards

Sage Brown   Website

Protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands

Sam Couch

There’s work ahead: 2020 – today, tomorrow, and beyond

There is work ahead, but the stakes are high, the world is gonna hear our battle cry. ONDA! 

At this moment, over one million acres in the Owyhee Canyonlands and hundreds of miles of waterways across the high desert are set up for enduring protection thanks to active campaigns and introduced legislation.

Across the desert, ONDA volunteers are surveying stream conditions on the Malheur wild and scenic rivers, pushing the Forest Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to maintain grazing restrictions that have been secured, after decades of legal pressure, along nearly 70 miles of bull trout streams.

Looking ahead, we know we will adopt the latest technologies, improve our techniques, involve different constituencies and pursue new avenues to gain desert protection. However our work evolves, one thing will certainly remain true: ONDA will be successful thanks to the generous support of passionate, principled people. Many of the same founding members from 1987 are still with ONDA today (Thank you!!) and, thanks to many initiatives, including our Tribal Stewards project and the Hillis Internship, we are actively engaging the next generation of desert advocates. As an ONDA supporter, you are an integral member of a principled, passionate and persistent community that can be counted on to ask “What’s the next challenge?” and then set out to solve it.