Independent Stewards

Sage Brown   Website

Oregon Natural Desert Association’s Independent Stewards program offers volunteers a self-directed option for promoting a healthy high desert in addition to our structured option of guided stewardship trips. ONDA provides participants with resources and specific assignments; they learn new skills and complete critical tasks while giving their high desert adventures an elevated purpose.


What defines Oregon’s high desert?

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

Bounded by the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Blue Mountains to the north, Oregon’s high desert covers approximately 24,000 square miles. Annual rainfall in the high desert varies from 5 to 14 inches. The average elevation is 4,000 feet; at 9,733 feet, the summit of Steens Mountain is the highest point in Oregon’s high desert. The terrain of the high desert was mostly formed by a series of lava flows that occurred between 30 and 10 million years ago.

Sources: The Oregon Encyclopedia; Wikipedia  


Oregon’s first desert wilderness

Oregon’s first desert wilderness

Steens Mountain: Oregon’s first desert wilderness

On October 30, 2000, Congress passed the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, finishing the work that had taken ONDA and the other members of the Steens-Alvord Coalition decades  

Steens Mountain is a land of startling contrasts: dramatic u-shaped

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Durlin Hicock, Alice Elshoff Award winner

Durlin Hicock, Alice Elshoff Award winner

“Protecting public land is part of my spiritual being. It’s central to my identity to be in wilderness and to see it protected.” Durlin is proud to protect public lands for future generations, saying, “The highlight of my childhood was our family’s weekend outdoor trips. I look forward to my grandchildren having similar experiences outside in their lifetimes, and it wouldn’t be possible without ONDA.”

An Independent Steward’s work

Independent Stewards assist ONDA with important projects while enjoying the high desert on their own. Stewards receive guidance from ONDA, but are primarily self-directed. A steward can choose to either visit an area where ONDA needs assistance or can ask about visiting an area of his/her own preference and see if ONDA is in need of information from that region.

Examples of projects include backpacking or driving through desert wildlands and recording data, taking high-quality geo-tagged photos in one of our focus areas, and repeatedly visiting a significant site, such as a spring or an archaeological site, to monitor changes.

Wildlands monitoring

Eastern Oregon contains over 2.5 million acres of Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). Each WSA is managed by the BLM. Independent Stewards help ensure these places maintain their Wilderness Characteristics by signing up to monitor the condition out in the field. Volunteers will explore within and around the WSA to document impacts they see while they are out. Email if you’d like to learn more about how to sign up and monitor a WSA.

Why it’s helpful

While the number of stewardship trips we host has continually grown over the years, there is always more work to be done on Oregon’s vast high desert public lands. Independent stewards are critical partners in getting more stewardship work in the high desert done, and perhaps even bringing new stewardship needs to light as they explore Oregon’s dry side with a trained eye.

How do I get started?

ONDA offers periodic trainings to equip volunteers to become Independent Stewards. Once trained, stewards can peruse tasks on the ONDA Independent Stewards program webpage. The tasks are described in detail and ONDA may provide additional specific information or materials depending on the assignment. Independent Stewards then relay their experience and/or data back to ONDA.

A full training will take place May 21-22, 2019 in Central Oregon. Registration is required.

Refresher trainings for Independent Stewards who have already attended full trainings will be offered periodically throughout the spring. 

Contact Lisa Foster at to learn more and sign up.

Current Monitoring Opportunities

A number of Independent Stewards opportunities are in need of volunteers like you. Learn more and sign up for a project below or contact Lisa if you are interested in WSA monitoring or another project.

If you visit public land in eastern Oregon and find garbage dumps, vandalism, off-road vehicle trespass, or other negative impacts, please email and include relevant photos and coordinates if possible.

Beatys Butte Fence Mapping
ODT Photo Monitoring

Sage Brown   Website

Sage Brown   Website

Sage Brown   Website


Michael O'Casey