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 glacial valleys, groves of quaking aspen, uplands lush with bunch grasses and wildflowers, sheer mountain rims falling away thousands of feet to alkali playas.

These diverse habitats teem with wildlife. Sage-grouse and pronghorn antelope roam the desert lands. Bighorn sheep climb the rugged rims and mule deer hide in the ravines. Redband trout thrive in its waters, while eagles and hawks hunt the big skies, and coyotes and owls fill the night with their calls.

The Steens Act, which created Oregon’s first desert wilderness, is not only an important accomplishment in ONDA’s history and a milestone for the state Oregon, but for conservation nationwide.

This landmark legislation created the nation’s first congressionally designated no livestock grazing wilderness area; added 29 miles to the federal Wild and Scenic River System; withdrew 1.1 million acres from mining and geothermal development; prohibited the use of off-road vehicles and the construction of new roads and facilities in a 496,000-acre Cooperative Management and Protection Area; and designated the nation’s first Redband Trout Reserve.

By working closely with Oregon’s congressional delegation and governor, and negotiating with local ranchers and landowners, the legislation was a huge step forward for wild lands and waters. Although we had successfully secured strong protection for the mountain, the following years proved that conservation is a process.

Protecting the Steens from industrial-scale wind development

Six years after the Steens Act, ONDA learned of a proposal to develop industrial-scale wind energy on Steens Mountain. The proposal from Columbia Energy Partners envisioned hundreds of wind turbines on the northern flanks of the mountain with high voltage transmission lines crossing miles of public lands directly through important wildlife habitat and areas with wilderness values. ONDA immediately tried to dissuade the developers, the county, and the Bureau of Land Management from pursuing such development in these important areas. The proposal moved forward despite our robust concerns and objections until ONDA was compelled to challenge the development in court. Over the course of nearly eight years, it became clear that the Echanis project wasn’t viable and lacked the necessary permits and agreements to proceed. Despite the less-than-viable project the BLM continued to defend its approval forcing ONDA to continue its challenge. After a lengthy and difficult legal process ONDA ultimately prevailed in 2017, permanently halting the Echanis project and protecting the Steens for industrial-scale development.

Ensuring thoughtful and responsible recreation and travel management

Steens Mountain invites people to enjoy adventures and challenges of all levels. Roads and trails that existed at the time of the Steens Act provide access to many parts of Steens Mountain while still protecting the remote and primitive character of the unroaded portions of the mountain. Developing a legal, reasonable, and comprehensive plan to manage recreation, roads, and trails has proven to be frustratingly challenging for the Bureau of Land Management. ONDA has been a leading and effective voice for a system of roads and trails that provide access while also protecting the environment. ONDA continues to pursue administrative and legal challenges to travel management decisions that attempt to re-open and maintain unnecessary roads and trails.

Protecting wilderness character

In 2009 BLM attempted to undermine the integrity of wilderness character on Steens Mountain by allowing the use of motorized equipment to cut down juniper trees in Wilderness Study Areas on the mountain. ONDA made clear to BLM that the use of motorized equipment was unnecessary and inconsistent with their own policies. Despite our consistent efforts BLM approved the project and began to move forward using the machinery before ONDA intervened to halt the impacts. After a complex legal process, ONDA prevailed and helped ensure that wilderness values on the mountain will be protected in the future.

Ongoing stewardship to conserve Steens Mountain for the future

Thanks to those decades of hard work and cooperation, Steens Mountain has been preserved as a place of magnificent beauty, with grand vistas and rich wildlife habitat. With ongoing attention, it can remain that way.

Working actively with stakeholders of all perspectives, ONDA ensures that grazing, recreation uses, and other uses of the Steens support the wild character of the mountain. We advocate for management that will protect the area’s integrity, stay in close contact with the land managers, and recruit hundreds of volunteers each year to restore streams, remove obsolete fence, and more.

All of ONDA’s efforts work in concert to keep this incomparable icon of Oregon’s high desert healthy and wild.