Central Oregon’s “Backyard Wilderness”

Our quest to protect the Oregon Badlands

Located just 15 miles east of Bend, Oregon Badlands is a 30,000-acre wilderness area filled with fascinating lava flows and ancient juniper trees. Arriving in the Badlands, so named for its rugged and harsh terrain, can feel like stepping onto another planet. Within this landscape, you will find some of the oldest trees in Oregon, Native American pictographs, incredible displays of desert wildflowers, dry river canyons, and castle-like rock formations.

Today, this area is well-known for its subtle beauty and opportunities for serenity and solitude, but for many years, few people knew about the wonders of the Badlands, and even fewer were engaged in advocating for its protection.

Building a base of support

That all changed due to the passion and persistence of ONDA’s founding members, and Alice Elshoff in particular. Countless people in Central Oregon and beyond took their first Badlands tour with Alice in the 1980s or first read about the area when she was interviewed for articles. Support for protecting the area grew as more people throughout Central Oregon were introduced to the Badlands.

Around this same time, supporters of Badlands Wilderness began to organize, forming the “Badlands Bunch,” which later blossomed into the Oregon Natural Desert Association. They spoke with local landowners, gave educational presentations to community groups, and achieved the first of two endorsements from the Bend City Council for protecting the Badlands.  

Unfortunately, not all of the people visiting the Badlands were respectful of the sensitive landscape, and trash dumping, ancient juniper theft and other abuses proliferated. These threats strengthened ONDA’s resolve in our campaign to protect the Badlands as wilderness.

ONDA continued to grow our membership and, with full-time paid staff on board, community support for protecting the Badlands grew exponentially. Yellow “Protect Badlands Wilderness” stickers popped up in business windows all around town after volunteers and staff earned the support of over 100 businesses for ONDA’s Badlands Wilderness Proposal. Letters to the editor flowed into the Bend Bulletin; over a two-year span over 100 letters in favor of Badlands Wilderness were published.

As the campaign to protect the Badlands gained steam, so did the opposition to wilderness. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts were among the strongest opponents to ONDA’s wilderness proposal, and they mounted an organized campaign against protecting the Badlands. Public hearings were contentious, and elected leaders on the Deschutes County Commission declined to weigh in, depriving the Badlands Wilderness proposal of a key show of local support. Despite years of debate and overwhelming grassroots support, the fight to protect the Badlands had seemingly reached a draw.

Finding community consensus

In order to engage a broader swath of the community, ONDA shifted our strategy. We worked with Central Oregon business leaders and an economics firm to produce a report demonstrating the economic benefits of protecting public lands like the Badlands. Building on the strong base of existing business support for the campaign, ONDA set our sights higher and engaged several of Central Oregon’s top employers. In the end, ONDA brought together a powerful list of over 200 businesses that supported protecting the Badlands as wilderness, including Deschutes Brewery and Mt. Bachelor.

With a broad community coalition and thousands of Central Oregonians backing protection for the Badlands, Oregon’s leaders in Congress finally took notice. On May 25, 2008, Senator Ron Wyden visited the Badlands and proclaimed his commitment to introduce legislation to protect the area as wilderness. Less than a month later, Badlands supporters celebrated as Senator Wyden introduced the Oregon Badlands Wilderness Act.

Over the next year, business owners took an active role in lobbying for the passage of the Oregon Badlands Wilderness Act, joining grassroots activists in writing letters to the editor, holding press conferences, and even traveling to Washington D.C. to meet with Oregon’s congressional delegation.

With a lot of hard work and a bit of lucky timing, the Oregon Badlands Wilderness Act was included in a nationwide package of conservation bills, giving it a stronger chance of speedy passage. Staff and volunteers gathered frequently at the ONDA office to crowd around a computer live-streaming C-Span as the Badlands bill made its way through the legislative process. On the day the Oregon Badlands Wilderness Act passed, cheers erupted throughout the office, and all around Central Oregon. In a fitting show of bipartisan unity, the Badlands bill earned the vote of every member of Oregon’s Congressional Delegation. Decades of work had finally paid off—the Oregon Badlands Wilderness Act was signed into law on March 30, 2009, permanently protecting this unique place for future generations.