A Look Back at the
2021 High Desert Speaker Series

Jim Davis

Author: Caelin Weiss  |  Published: April 28, 2021  |  Category: Look Back

Each spring, ONDA presents the High Desert Speaker Series to share knowledge about intriguing aspects of high desert culture, science and recreation.

It’s our hope that these events renew our collective appreciation of the lands, waterways, wildlife and people of the region and inspire a commitment to creating a thriving future for Oregon’s desert wildlands. This year, we were so gratified to see thousands of members of our community tune in to explore the high desert virtually. You watched these events from all over the country, and in record numbers. We have particularly loved hearing from people about how the High Desert Speaker Series has motivated new desert adventures and further learning.

To celebrate, we offer a look back at the three events in the series and a few of the stories you have shared with us. And, if you missed any of the events or would like to view one again, we have captioned recordings available.


John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

Restoration is hard slow work. It takes hold, or it doesn’t, in fits and starts. The immensity of the need can be discouraging, but we must carry on. I am so thankful ONDA carries on.


Tim Neville, journalist

Tim Neville, journalist

“Oregon’s Owyhee reminds me a lot of Southern Utah’s red rock country… only dipped in fudge.”


Greater Sage Grouse and Sparrows at Hart Mountain

Greater Sage Grouse and Sparrows at Hart Mountain

The Events

The Hope of Wild Places featuring Wilson Wewa and Jason Houston

“My people lived on the land from the beginning of time. They hunted there, they fished there, they gathered roots and medicine there. And the land is our home. We’ve never been disconnected from that land, for as long as our story continues. And each generation has been given a task of carrying that story. To us, the native American people, and to the Paiute people, those histories, those genealogies, the knowledge of the plants and the food and the water, the changing of the seasons, all have their own story and the more that we tell those things to our children and our grandchildren that helps that hope for us to continue to acknowledge that land as our home.” – Wilson Wewa, “The Hope of Wild Places”

Jason Houston (left) and Wilson Wewa (right)

In the first event in the 2021 series, we were joined by Northern Paiute spiritual leader and oral historian Wilson Wewa and photographer and filmmaker Jason Houston for a conversation about Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands, the role of storytelling in conservation and the hope offered by protected wild places.

Wilson and Jason had previously collaborated on a short film, “The Owyhee Project” (working title), which featured Wilson’s reflections on his ancestral homelands in eastern Oregon, the sense of identity born from relationship to the landscape, and the importance of ensuring a healthy future for the Owyhee Canyonlands. After screening the film, Wilson and Jason reflected on their respective roles as storytellers and their methods of sharing stories. Their perspectives on how stories breathe life into landscapes and grow our collective understanding of a place inspired all of us who listened in and shed light on the beloved landscapes of eastern Oregon.

Get the captioned recording

The Geological Journey of Desert Rivers featuring Elizabeth Safran

“Most geomorphologists have thought of the rivers as kind of leading the way, leading landscape evolution, and essentially dragging the hillslopes after them by steepening them and causing them to fall apart, eventually, discharging sediment into the rivers which then gets flushed away. So it’s very much a kind of river-centric view. And yet, sometimes the hill slopes fight back.” – Elizabeth Safran, “The Geological Journey of Desert Rivers”

Elizabeth Safran

In this event, geomorphologist Elizabeth Safran taught us about how the lively geology of Oregon’s high desert affects rivers in the region. We learned about the relatively recent formation of Oregon’s landmass, beginning with the accretion of rocks along the North American continent (spoiler alert: this landmass underwent a lot of other geological changes to look like the land we would recognize today). Elizabeth outlined the dynamic relationship between desert rivers’ roles as geomorphic agents, changing the landscapes they flow through, and how lava flows and landslides, in turn, affect the course of these rivers.

It’s no secret that waterways are essential to life in the high desert. “The Geological Journey of Desert Rivers” highlighted some of the ways that land, and the changes it undergoes, contribute to water retention and shape the course of rivers throughout Oregon’s dry side.

Get the captioned recording

Stories from the Sagebrush Sea featuring Ed Jahn

“To me, that’s the ultimate desert experience. It’s not what happens during the day, it’s at night. I’ll sleep all day just to watch the stars at night.” – Ed Jahn, “Stories from the Sagebrush Sea”

Ed Jahn

In the final event in the 2021 series, “Oregon Field Guide” Executive Producer Ed Jahn took us for a tour of Oregon’s high desert told through the stories his crew has collected over years of traveling the backroads and routes of the region. This exploration offered a unique take on the lives and landscapes of the high desert, and Ed shared his perspectives on what has changed for the high desert in the time he’s been covering these stories. From dark skies to desert-inspired art to whitewater paddleboarding, there’s something for everyone to appreciate about Oregon’s dry side.

Get the Captioned Recording

Your Stories

Wilson Wewa by Elissa Pfost

Elissa Pfost

Here are three of our favorite reflections inspired by the series:
  • After listening to Wilson Wewa’s talk, ONDA member Kathy Moser told us, “I bought his book Legends of the Northern Paiute, and found the stories of the first and second people funny and heartwarming and learned a lot. After completing it, I donated my copy of Wilson Wewa’s stories to the local library and now they’re featuring it on their homepage!”
  • ONDA member Elissa Pfost shared a sketch of Wilson Wewa that she made while taking notes during “The Hope of Wild Places.” Since this event explored different methods of sharing and documenting stories, the image of Wilson surrounded by his words about his family and the lifeways of the Northern Paiute people captures the moment in an especially genuine way. (You’ve seen Elissa Pfost’s amazing art before if you have one of ONDA’s sage-grouse bandanas or one of ONDA t-shirts from years past.)
  • The day after Elizabeth Safran’s talk, “The Geological Journey of Desert Rivers,” we posted a photo of  the Middle Deschutes River and were delighted to see this comment posted on Facebook: “And now that we’ve seen Dr. Safran’s talk on lava flow and landslide river blockages, we can see photos like this with newly-peeled eyes!” That’s just the sort of outcome we hope for with this series.

Thanks to the presenters who shared their unique and deep knowledge about the region and to you, our conservation community, the impact of the 2021 High Desert Speaker Series continues to grow even after this year’s series has wrapped.

If you have any thoughts about the High Desert Speaker Series you’d like to share with ONDA’s team, we’d love to hear your feedback. Send us a note to share your perspective.