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Threats to the High Desert

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Cattle Grazing

Cattle in riparian area photo Borden Beck

Throughout the Oregon high desert, there are serious threats that have caused large problems for native plants and animals. One common threat is grazing, which can destroy the natural sagebrush grasslands in the desert. Along with grazing comes the issue of development, which can completely remove wild lands.

“I rejoice in the silent consolations of the desert and am soothed by the tenderness of the new-waked breeze.”

—C.E.S. Wood. “The Poet in the Desert”

Development also leads to more people who want to enjoy the area, and these people often bring off road vehicles. These off-road vehicles (ORVs) often cause destruction to the landscape, especially when the drivers don’t stay on designated paths. Mining is another threat that can dramatically alter the desert.

The last serious threat to the high desert is the invasion of non-native species. Alternative energy development poses a potential threat when the siting of such development is not well thought out.


The Owyhee country is an example of an ecosystem where livestock have traditionally had widespread access to. They unwittingly cause all manner of ecological damage including water pollution (both chemical and thermal), soil and erosion and compaction, streambank degredation, introduction of invasive weeds, reduction of wildlife forage and habitat (especially in riparian areas), and destruction of desert crusts (these fibrous mats of interwoven lichens, fungi, and algae anchor and protect desert soils and are critically important to arid ecosystems; once damaged, they can take centuries to recover). In addition to the 800-1000 lbs/mo of forage a cow consumes, they also consume vast quantities of water which is the most limiting factor in desert ecology to begin with.

Grazing-related damage in the Owyhee Canyonlands area is most evident along fragile streambanks, in wet meadows, and artifical watering stations where livestock tend to congregate. There are many streams in the area which do not meet state water quality standards and these waterways provide important habitat for struggling populations of Great Basin redband trout and other wildlife.

While the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has implemented some court ordered grazing regulations over the past few years (cows have been removed from the wild and scenic river corridor, but unfortunately watering pipelines are being developed in the uplands), the ecology of the Owyhee watershed will never fully recover until livestock are removed or significantly reduced in sensitive areas.

Similiar grazing problems exist throughout the eastern Oregon, including the Owyhee Canyonlands and wilderness study areas in the high desert.

Conservationist’s Solutions

With the designation of Steens Mountain Cooperative Management Area, 97,000 acres of cow free wilderness was created in the Upper Blitzen River Watershed and Steens’ aspen forests and alpine meadows. In the Owyhee Canyonlands, protective designation could give BLM the opportunity to gradually phase out livestock from sensitive, critically important habitat, such as riparian areas. Designation of additional wilderness areas in the high desert could also help BLM acquire additional resources and a mandate to better protect areas where grazing will continue.

Kiger Gorge

Kiger Gorg, Steens Mountain photo Walt Hunt


One of the greatest challenges in the Steens-Alvord and other desert areas lies in curtailing the inappropriate development of private lands.

“Nothing but joy and delight, the freedom of solitude.”

—Edward Abby

Private land development threatens wildlife corridors and habitat, solitude, and peaceful recreational opportunities. Such development could take a tremendous toll on Steens-Alvord wildlife habitat by fragmenting and degrading thousands of acres.

Under current zoning and Measure 37 claims, we could see 100's of houses built on Steens Mountain, and potential vacation homes are not the only problem here. In past years there have been proposals to build a commercial lodge on the mountain. A few years ago a zoning variance was approved for a commercial development at “The Narrows” near Malheur Wildlife Refuge and a camping facility and convenience market complex were built.

Being more remote, the Owyhee Canyonlands are currently under less development pressure, but the potential threat exists there as well.

Conservationist’s Solutions

Designation of Steens-Alvord as a protected area may provide the BLM with much-needed resources to acquire lands from willing sellers, giving the agency a chance to consolidate lands for more effective management. While passage of the act did involve some signinificant land exchanges, appropriation of funding legislated in the act for future acquisition and exchanges has been held up in Congress. Designation may also help the state of Oregon implement an additional conservation planning overlay that would encourage landowners to keep lands in open space--and help prevent “condo-mania” on Steens Mountain. While voluntary land trades were a critical part of the Steens bill, there are still many acres of private land which remain suseptible to development pressure.

Protecting private lands adjacent to or within the Steens Mountain Wilderness and wilderness study areas from development remains an issue which begs for resolution. The designation of other wilderness and land trades elsewhere will provide the needed protection for areas such as the Owyhee Canyonlands.

Off Road Vehicles (ORVs)

Off Road Vehicle Damage - Steens Mt. Areai

Off Road Vehicle Damage - Richard Beckett

Destruction of soil and vegetation by off-road vehicles leads to erosion, lack of forage and habitat for wildlife. The BLM predicts a statewide increase in off-road vehicle (ORV) use of 200% over the next 20 years.

“The high desert has an effect on people. The place has a way of swallowing you up.”

—Campbell Scott

Before creation of the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management Area, only 7,000 acres on Steens Mountain were closed to ORV use; on the remaining one million acres, ORV trails stretch for hundreds of miles and criss-cross much of the area. A similiar situation exists in the Owyhee country with the only obsticle to ORVs being the rugged terrain. While current ORV problems in the Owyhee Canyonlands area are isolated, the damage is still all too evident and is increasing, including soil erosion and compaction, vegetation damage, degradation of wilderness values and cultural sites, harassment of wildlife, and destruction of desert biotic crusts. Presently, the BLM does little to monitor ORV use, much less enforce regulations.

Conservationist’s Solutions

Permanent wilderness and other protective designations for the Owyhee Canyonlands and elsewhere are the first steps toward limiting ORV damage, along with road closures and education of public land users. However, additional funding and staff are also necessary to monitor and enforce existing regulations governing ORV use, along with other forms of destructive recreation.

Currently one of the main controversies stalling protection of the Badlands WSA east of Bend is the issue of enforcing closed ORV routes where fragile soils bear the scars for years. Designating the area as wilderness will help protect the area permanently.

On Steens Mountain the BLM has been slowly working on a belated travel management plan which will decide the future ORV use and and potential road closures. Closing unnecessary vehicle routes would help protect wildlands on the mountain.


Cattle Grazing Streambed

Owyhee River - Rustica Carlos

Fifteen years ago, southeastern Oregon was the focus of a mini “gold rush,” and literally hundreds of mining claims cropped up on and around the Owyhee Canyonlands, Steens Mountain, and elsewhere. Low gold prices led to a lull in potential gold exploration here, but as prices have rebounded, we could see large swaths of Southeast Oregon torn up in the quest for gold.

“Now I see the secret of making the best persons, it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.”

—Walt Whitman

Gold mining in the Owyhee Canyonlands area would rely on the cyanide heap leach process, which results in massive, permanent open pits and acres of chemically-poisoned mining tailings. Runoff from such tailings and settling ponds will undoubtedly enter streams. Such damage is all but impossible to repair and the danger to watersheds and watertables undoubtedly catastrophic.

The State already warns people against eating fish caught in the Owyhee Reservoir due to high levels of toxins, likely a result of historic mining in the upper watershed. One only has to look at states such as neighboring Nevada to see the permanant damage caused by this type of mining.

Geothermal Development

During the early 1990s, the Alvord Basin and its unique ecosystem immediately adjacent to Steens Mountain was the site of active geothermal leases and exploratory drilling. This geothermal development is currently prohibited, thanks in part to conservationists’ strong opposition to the project. While there has been less geothermal exploration in the Owyhee country, the area does have thermal hot spots. While geothermal energy sources are seen as a clean energy soruce, such development is not compatible with wilderness values.

Conservationist’s Solutions

Permanent Protection - Steens Mountain Cooperative Management Area Act of 2000 contained language intented to permanently withdraw the area from mining and geothermal leasing, thus eliminating these potential threats. However, threats from mining continue to exist for much of Oregon’s High Desert and especially the threat of cyanide heap leach mining in the Owyhee Canyonlands. Wilderness and other protective designations could provide the political support for permanant withdrawal of mineral leasing in the area, but it is important that such a withdrawal cover the ecoregion, not just areas with special designation.