The Owyhee Canyonlands, located in southeastern Oregon, spans well over 2 million acres with a mixture of public and private lands. For many years, this remarkable area has remained a relatively untouched gem of wilderness enjoyed by wildlife, recreationalists, and private landowners alike. However, a considerable portion of this land lacks any official or permanent protection. With much of the land being up for grabs, so to speak, and ripe with opportunities for gas, oil, and especially mining development, the clock is ticking for citizens, politicians, and environmental groups to rally together on a local and national scale to push for federal protection of this wilderness—before it is too late.
When many people hear the word desert, it might not elicit thoughts of a landscape that is full of biodiversity. Nonetheless, they often are extremely productive and delicate places, and the Owyhee Canyonlands is a prime example of this. According to Wild Owyhee, the Owyhees provide refuge for over 200 wildlife species ranging from big game animals, such as pronghorn and elk, to raptors, such as golden eagles and red-tailed hawks. The sagebrush steppe provides crucial habitat for the Greater sage-grouse, which has become an imperiled animal largely due to habitat fragvmentation. Its rivers contain fish like steelhead, chinook salmon, and redband trout. Furthermore, and maybe most astonishingly of all, there are an estimated 28 plant species that are endemic to this area! This desert truly is an oasis of life. If it does not warrant protection solely for the well-being of the surfeit of creatures that call it home, then what natural area does?
A landscape that is a mecca for wildlife often likewise provides numerous recreational opportunities and breathtaking views, and the Owyhee Canyonlands is no exception. For instance, depending on one’s interests, it offers everything from hunting, fishing, kayaking, and horse riding to camping, birdwatching, trail running, and hiking—just to name a few. Moreover, the Oregon Natural Desert Association suggests that many scientists believe it will soon become one of the last places in the lower 48 where light pollution is minimal enough to allow for unobstructed views of the night sky and the Milky Way. Thus the Owyhees offer some tantalizing prospects for whichever organisms cross its paths.
As bountiful as this landscape is, it is now attracting a new suitor in the form of modern industry. The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries released a report that identified potential high economic value minerals, such as gold and uranium, in multiple locations in the Owyhees. In addition to this potential mining, there are already 170,000 acres being leased for gas and oil exploration. There is significant economic potential in this region, and the external pressures from corporations seeking to extract these natural resources continues to mount. Likewise, there are many potential environmental risks associated with gas, oil, and mining development, including habitat fragmentation, soil erosion, and the leaching of toxic metals into waterways. It goes without saying that these risks are not to be taken lightly, and it is hard to fully comprehend the adverse impacts that they could have on the Owyhee Canyonlands. Considering the past history of some gas, oil, and mining companies, it seems it would be better to leave these lands intact.
Consequently, with industrial pressures mounting, how do we raise awareness to these threats and stand up to powerful corporations? Well, for trail runners Jeff Browning and Jesse Haynes and their support team, it was to run the last 170 miles of the recently created Oregon Desert Trail (ODT), a nearly 800-mile primitive trail, in a mere 4 days. I actually first heard about the Owyhees and the issues surrounding them through an exceptional article in the magazine Trail Runner. The article detailed the childhood experiences of the author Jeff Browning, including what motivated him to undertake this journey and his hope to inspire others to fight for the preservation of the Owyhees. It certainly left a lasting impression on me, and it beautifully displayed how there are so many avenues one can take to try and make a difference in the fight for environmental justice. By the way, they fell a few miles short of running the full 170 miles. However, I think we can give them a pass!
In addition to the great work of these trail runners, there are many more voices standing up for the Owyhee Canyonlands. For example, the ODT trail was created by the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) whose members are voluntary, everyday citizens from all walks of life. Furthermore, famous organizations such as the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and others, are collaboratively working with local organizations like ONDA to petition citizens and lawmakers alike to help obtain permanent protection for the Owyhees. Will this activism be enough to cause the federal government to designate the Owyhee Canyonlands as a National Monument, and therefore give it the security it warrants? One can only hope so, and with the outpouring of support on a local and national scale, one can certainly be encouraged and optimistic that it will be.
What unique things have you undertaken yourself or heard of others doing to raise awareness on environmental issues in the area where you live or beyond?
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