Meet the 2020 Alice
Elshoff Award Recipient

Author: Corinne Handelman  |  Published: January 19, 2021  |  Category: Profile

Meet John Cunningham

Like many ONDA volunteers, John Cunningham is up for any challenge — and his positive attitude and long-standing commitment to supporting ONDA’s conservation mission have landed him the honor of receiving our 2020 Alice Elshoff Conservation Award.

“After 30+ stewardship trips completed,” John said, “ONDA’s work just fits me perfectly, because anything that’s dirty, dusty, muddy, rocky and hard … count me in!”

This sentiment has clearly impacted the work of ONDA’s stewardship staff and fellow volunteers.

“Seeing John’s name on my trip participant list always brings a smile to my face. He exemplifies hard worker and is just really enjoyable to be around,” noted Riparian Restoration Coordinator Jefferson Jacobs.

John first learned of ONDA’s conservation work around 1996 when the clean streams initiative gained traction across Oregon. He recalled being drawn to this campaign because his father was a commercial fisherman and salmon fed their family, literally and figuratively. After Measure 38 failed on the ballot, John sought out the groups behind the conservation effort in hopes of supporting their work and discovered ONDA.

John became a steady ONDA member, donating year after year. His first foray into volunteering with ONDA came through a stewardship trip to pull fence in Steens Mountain Wilderness at Ankle and Muddy Creeks. He described this trip as his dream come true.

“We hiked five miles into the wilderness and pulled barbed wire fence in a quiet place with friendly people, and I was just hooked,” said John.


Terry Butler, 2018 Volunteer of the Year

Terry Butler, 2018 Volunteer of the Year

“If I have to pick a favorite place in Oregon’s high desert, it would be Sutton Mountain, but I’m excited about all of the Wilderness Study Areas,” says Terry, adding, “Each is a gem to explore, and I hope they all get protection someday… I love the scale of the physical beauty of the desert.”


Cottonwood Canyon Riparian Soundscape

Cottonwood Canyon Riparian Soundscape


Western Rattlesnake

Western Rattlesnake

Also known as the Great Basin Rattlesnake, these pit vipers have buff-tan coloring and small, oval blotches to blend into their arid surroundings. Small heat-sensing indentations on each side of the snake’s snout detects warm-blooded prey for better striking accuracy in the dark. Source: The Oregon Encyclopedia

Latin name: Crotalus oreganus lutosus

Sage Brown   Website

Sage Brown   Website

Heidi Hagermeier

Over the years, John has built a special connection to landscapes across Oregon’s high desert.

“Every place I go, there are magic moments. That’s what’s addictive. The colors of the Owyhee, the intact grass slopes of Pine Creek, those large open expanses of sagebrush at Hart Mountain, sweet creeks in the Malheur National Forest. There are moments of rapture on each trip for me. That’s the payoff. That’s why I come back,” he mused.

Over time, these moments have given John an enduring, optimistic outlook for the future of these wild, vast landscapes.

ONDA established the Elshoff Award in 2008 to honor individuals who embody ONDA’s conservation values, and to celebrate their significant contributions to protecting Oregon’s desert wilderness.

Upon receiving this honor in 2020, John humbly shared this message, “For me, more than anything else, ONDA provides hope. So much hope.  Hope that sage grouse and antelope, beaver and bull trout and redband, and my beloved salmon, have safe homes and passage through their ancient landscapes. Hope that all birds and bugs and reptiles flourish and thrive in this crowded, changing world.  Hope that intact sagebrush steppes and native grass hillsides and cold running creeks will forever remain resilient and define Oregon’s deserts.

“You, and all the volunteers I share work with, plant hope — every letter written, card signed, lawsuit filed, BDA built, post driven or taken out, bird counted, roadless area mapped, willow planted — is a powerful cry for a better, richer, and diverse future.”

This tremendous effort and yearning for a brighter future unites the ONDA community. We selected John to be the 2020 Alice Elshoff Conservation Award recipient because we share his hope for the future of intact and diverse habitats across the sagebrush sea and appreciate his inspiring contributions to our community.