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The Owyhee Canyonlands Protection Campaign


Lupine on South Steens photo Borden Beck

The Sierra Club is working to pass legislation to permanently protect the Owyhee Canyonlands. We would like to see 2 million acres of the Owyhee Canyonlands permanently protected.

“If the Desert is Holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred.”

—Terry Tempest Williams

Nearly 14 million years ago, geological forces began to form what today is known as the Owyhee Canyonlands region. This rugged and majestic place is found in the southeast corner of Oregon and spills into both Idaho and Nevada. The Owyhee Canyonlands, known as the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Oregon, are a mosaic of more than 3 million acres of land comprising the largest unprotected roadless area in the lower 48 states. It also comprises over 700,000 acres of potential wilderness and 288 miles of wild and scenic rivers.

The Owyhee Canyonlands is characterized by stunning broad landscapes, jagged rock formations, sagebrush steppe, and subtle but striking displays of desert colors. Whether viewing soaring eagles and honeycomb like rock configurations, rafting down the river, or hiking narrow canyons, the opportunity for solitude and connection with the wild is truly outstanding. In the Owyhee Canyonlands you enter a world of immense possibility, and unlimited natural beauty. The Owyhee region is home to many different types of plants and animals including species that are only found in this region, which means that they can easily become endangered or extinct if not protected.

Download and view our Owyhee Canyonlands Campaign Brochure

History of the Owyhee Canyonlands

Threats to the Owyhee Canyonlands

A Cooperative Success for Steens

For over a decade, the Oregon Chapter’s High Desert Committee worked to protect special places in southeast Oregon. Our biggest success came October 30, 2000 when President Clinton signed the “Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act of 2000”.

Among the highlights of the act are:

A Steens Mountain Advisory Council has been formed, as required by the legislation, to advise the BLM in the design and implementation of a management plan for the area. The SMAC has 12 voting members who represent different groups interested in Steens. More information on the SMAC including meeting dates is available at the Steens Mountain Advisory Council.

However our work is not done. There are still land exchanges, more wilderness designation which needs to take place, and controversy over various land use decisions with the ongoing management plans. The High Desert Committee is continuing its work to insure additional protection and intelligent management for Steens Mountain-Alvord Basin.

History of the Owyhee Canyonlands

Millions of years ago, before the earth’s surface slowly shifted, concentrated volcanic activity known as a ‘hot spot’ sat below what is now the Owyhee Canyonlands. These volcanoes helped forge a solid rhyolite-basalt foundation for the entire region. As thousands of years passed, the area was flooded and as the water drained out via the Owyhee River and its tributaries, deep gorges were carved into the foundation. This process, over thousands of years, has created the world’s largest concentration of exposed rhyolite canyons.

Humans have lived in the Owyhee Canyonlands for 12,000 years, and the rich cultural history includes that of the Shoshone and Paiute tribes. In 1818, the North West Fur Company sent Donald McKenzie into the area to help build the growing business. The region was possibly named after three Hawaiian men who were lost in the canyonlands while looking for routes and furs. The phonetic spelling of their homeland was what led to the official name Owyhee.

Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs)

The Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), passed by Congress in 1976, required the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to inventory its lands for possible inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. FLPMA required that BLM lands of wilderness character be set aside as Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) and that a recommendation as to their future wilderness designation be completed and submitted to the president by 1991. Congress reserved for itself the right to designated wilderness or to release lands from WSA status.

Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) are found across the country and are protected by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A WSA is an area of land that is found to have wilderness qualities, which include but are not limited to:

Once a parcel of land is designated a WSA it is managed by the BLM to maintain its wilderness qualities until Congress passes legislation either proclaiming the area permanent wilderness or releasing, the land from further consideration as wilderness.

In Oregon, the BLM manages 72 WSAs and 17 of these are found within the Owyhee Canyonlands. Although they manage 17 WSAs in the Canyonlands, the BLM is only recommending 9 of them to become designated wilderness. These 9 areas total 370,576 acres, which is less than half of the total Owyhee acreage of 791,985 acres.

List of WSA’s in Owyhee

Blue Canyon Bowden Hills Cedar Mountain Clarks Butte
Dry Creek Dry Creek Buttes Honeycombs Jordan Craters
Lookout Butte Lower Owyhee Canyon Owyhee Breaks Owyhee River Canyon
Saddle Butte Slocum Creek Upper Leslie Gulch Upper West Little Owyhee
Wild Horse Basin

Oregon Desert Conservation Act and Beyond

The Oregon Conservation Act, or ODCA, was drafted in the 1990’s by conservationists, economists, and ecologists interested in securing permanent legislative protection for the biological riches of the Oregon High Desert. When the first Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) were designated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), it was believed by many conservationists that important bioregions were excluded. There was also a belief that the criteria for selecting WSAs didn’t focus enough on the ecological integrity of the land. The BLM instead used a utilitarian model that valued the land in terms of its productivity rather than its ecological importance, when deciding what lands were important.

Since then, a broad consortium of interests in Idaho succeeded in developing a wilderness protection and land management plan refered to as the Owyhee Iniatiave. Legislation was passed by Congress in 2009 protecting numerous wilderness areas in the Idaho portion of the Owyhee drainage.

Oregon conservation groups are again pursuing efforts to gain permanant protection for the wilderness quality lands on the Oregon side of the border. Since the days of ODCA, efforts have been put into developing a reinventory of Citizens' Wilderness to identify lands suitable for protection that the BLM overlooked. We believe that the time is ripe to relook at the Owyhee and encourage our congressional delegation to take action to protect this unique and invaluable landscape.

Threats to the Owyhee Canyonlands


Over the past one hundred and fifty years, extensive cattle grazing in the Owyhee region has caused serious damage to riparian and sagebrush ecosystems. Grazing has also destroyed the microbiotic crusts that act as the foundation of the desert by storing the moisture and nutrients necessary for plant and animal life. Excess nutrients from cattle excrement cause algal blooms to grown in streams and rivers, which then deprive native fish from the oxygen that is essential to life. Predators in the areas where grazing is allowed, such as coyotes and wild cats, are also at increased risk from interactions with humans.

Cattle Grazing:

Off-Road Vehicle Use

Due to an increase in the popularity and minimal enforcement of regulations, off-road vehicles (ORVs or OHVs) are a constant and growing problem in Owyhee Canyonlands. ORVs cause many problems and ORVs present a serious threat to the ecosystem.

ORV use:


Although currently there are no large-scale mining operations in existence in the Owyhee canyonlands, there is some recreational mining occuring. If the price of gold increases, a large mine could be opened on Grass Mountain could have a huge impact because it is near the Owyhee Reservoir. This mine could cause serious issues, including issues with cyanide leaching. Mining laws, which were written in 1872, are what allow large corporations the right to mine public lands.


Non-Native Species

Cattle and ORVs have transported non-native plant species into the Owyhee Canyonlands causing thousands of acres of degradation, especially within the bluebunch wheatgrass biome. Some of the more serious invasive species are the cheatgrass, Russian thistle, and tumble mustard, whereas the white top, knapweed, and yellow star thistle also evoke concern. The reason that cheatgrass is such an issue is that it dries out faster than native species of grass. This has dramatically altered the natural burn cycle from the historical rate of every 60 to110 years to a devastating 3 to 5 year cycle.

Non-native species: