Another Owyhee Canyonlands Milestone

Aaron Reddecliffe

Author: Ryan Houston  |  Published: October 4, 2022  |  Category:  In The News

Another Milestone for the Owyhee Canyonlands

It’s not hard to get lost in the deeply forked, meandering canyons and washes of the Owyhee Canyonlands. This landscape – etched across millions of acres in Oregon’s far southeastern corner – is a place where rivers large and small have eroded through multi-colored layers of rock to shape one of Oregon’s most remote and wild landscapes.

Like the Owyhee, there are times when the political paths we walk to secure lasting protections for this irreplaceable wilderness are sinuous and intimidating, complete with dead-end box canyons, impassible cliffs, an occasional flash flood, and even moments of quiet like the silent loneliness of a moonless winter night.

But like any grand adventure in Oregon’s desert, ONDA’s decades-long effort to conserve the Owyhee Canyonlands is marked by important milestones, each denoting progress toward our goal of securing permanent protections for one of Oregon’s most stunning landscapes. In September 2022, Senator Ron Wyden with Senator Jeff Merkley as cosponsor, introduced the new Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act (Malheur CEO Act) (S.4860), in the U.S. Senate, putting another such marker on the map.

For those unfamiliar with ONDA’s journey to conserve the Owyhee, I’ll retrace our steps: Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands are one of the largest remaining conservation opportunities in the contiguous United States, with more than 2.5 million acres of wilderness quality lands, spectacular canyons, rich human history, huge expanses of intact habitat for imperiled species like the greater sage-grouse, awesome night skies, and unparalleled opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation.

The Owyhee is also a vulnerable landscape, threatened by climate change, invasive species, fire, mining, and other industrial development that can compromise the ecological integrity, wildlife habitat and wilderness values across the region. Conservation organizations, Tribes, ranchers, sporting groups, recreationalists and others have been working for decades to improve conservation and management throughout the Canyonlands.

S.4860 began to take shape in early 2019 when Senator Wyden convened diverse stakeholders and Tribes to develop a proposal for the long‐term conservation and management of more than 4.5 million acres of federal public land in Malheur County, Oregon, including the Owyhee. Years passed, involving many, many – did I say many? – conversations and negotiations to wrestle a proposal into form, ultimately producing the legislation that now awaits action in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

There are many layers to this bill that seeks to address conservation, recreation, tourism, ranching, ecological monitoring and adaptive management, economic development, Tribal needs, and other concerns.  But in short, the legislation:

  • Designates of more than 1.1 million acres of Wilderness in the Owyhee Canyonlands and surrounding areas. The largest wilderness block is contiguous with Idaho’s 266,390-acre Owyhee River Wilderness designated in 2009;
  • Conveys land into trust for the Burns Paiute Tribe;
  • Establishes a flexible, adaptive, science‐based grazing management and monitoring program intended to improve the ecological health of public lands; and
  • Provides for feasibility studies, improvements and other investment to support economic development, tourism and recreational opportunities in Malheur County.

We are deeply grateful for the tremendous work by Senator Wyden’s staff and many people who contributed to the discussions that resulted in this bill. Its introduction is a key moment in the winding path of the legislative process, and a chance for us to pause and reflect before pushing toward the next cairn that marks our path to protecting the Owyhee.

In the weeks and months ahead we hope to see this important legislation move through the hearing and mark-up process where it can be refined and polished for passage in 2022. As is the norm for any legislation like this, we cannot predict what will happen, we cannot control the uncontrollables, and we don’t know what might be around the next bend.  But we are proud of our progress to date, pleased to have reached this milestone, and optimistic about what lies ahead for Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands.


Mary McCord, ONDA Volunteer

Mary McCord, ONDA Volunteer

“I find enjoyment in the peaceful wide open spaces, geology, and rich history of Oregon’s high desert,” says Mary. Reflecting on volunteering, she continues, “If you have the ability and desire, it’s important to do something to contribute. It doesn’t have to be big, because every little bit helps.”


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