The Owyhee River, seen here at “Hole in the Ground,” has been designated a “Wild and Scenic River.” Photo by Sandy Lonsdale, courtesy Sierra Club.
Quite a few people have never heard of the Owyhee country or its spectacular canyonlands. Others are vaguely aware that the Owyhee is somewhere in Oregon. Still others are activist advocates of this southeastern Oregon treasure and are working tirelessly to protect it.
Centered primarily in Malheur County but spilling over Oregon's borders into Idaho and Nevada, part of the Owyhee's problem is its remoteness. It's not exactly on the way to anywhere - except maybe Winnemucca or, circuitously, Boise. According to the Sierra Club, the stark and beautiful rivers, canyons, and volcanic habitat of southeast Oregon comprise "the largest unprotected roadless area in the lower 48 states."
For more than 20 years, the Sierra Club and other organizations have been pushing hard for the area's preservation. In 2000, the plight of over a million acres in southeastern Oregon was ostensibly recognized by Congress, but nothing has since been done to establish any permanent protection for the region.
Sierra Club representative Borden Beck is one of those dedicated to permanently preserving the Owhyee.
"Here we are still waiting for Congress to do something," said Beck at a recent Sierra Club gathering in Bend. Clearly frustrated by the inability of Congress to act, Beck accused the last Congress of "being the first since 1964 to not pass any wilderness legislation."
For years, Beck, and others like him, have sought to have Congress formally designate the region as a wilderness area. However, the long-standing failure of Congress to act has caused the Sierra Club to pursue another option. While the idea of Congressional wilderness designation has not been abandoned, the organization has launched the "Sierra Club Monument Campaign" as an alternative.
The monument campaign is predicated on the idea that national monuments can be unilaterally created by presidential proclamation. That presidential power dates to the Antiquities Act of 1906. President Theodore Roosevelt was the first to utilize the act for creation of a national monument when he believed Congress was not taking sufficient action to protect Devil's Tower in Wyoming. Since then, the act has been used by numerous Presidents when Congressional action bogged down to the point where presidents felt that Congressional inaction would result in loss or damage to sites of important national significance.
As one of the largest remaining unprotected roadless areas, the Sierra Club has selected the Owyhee Canyonlands to be one of five areas in five different states targeted for preservation in their monument campaign. With more than 400 bighorn sheep, the area is home to one of the largest such populations in the country. The area also provides important habitat for pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk, sage grouse, bats, raptors, reptiles, and many sensitive plant species.
The name Owyhee is said to be a peculiar spelling corruption of "Hawaii." Historical tradition says that, in 1819, three Hawaiians were sent on a trapping expedition along the river. They never returned, and the river was named in honor of the men and their homeland.
Nearly two million acres have been identified as being "lands of wilderness character." Half of that has been designated as "Wilderness Study Areas," but that designation has thus far not translated to formal wilderness recognition by Congress. The region is also home to more than 500 known archeological sites, with evidence of human habitation dating back over 10,000 years.
The region's Birch Creek Historic Ranch is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the public can see an irrigating waterwheel, old hand-built stone walls, as well as historic buildings.
Much of the Owyhee River itself has been officially designated as a wild and scenic river and offers hiking, hot springs, hunting, and river-rafting. The region's rich geologic history provides spectacular scenic cliffs, canyons, and volcanic features.
Beck lamented that most of the people who are pushing for preservation of the area live in the Portland area.
"We would like to have more people on this side of the mountains involved," he said. He pointed out that Congressional representatives are more likely to listen, and be responsive, to their own constituents.
The Sierra Club High Desert Committee is sponsoring several outings and events in the Owyhee area this year, including a rendezvous in June, a fence pull in July, and a fall trip with details yet to be determined. Persons wishing to learn more or become involved in the preservation of the Owyhee Canyonlands are invited to contact Borden Beck at 503-706-3534 or by email at email@example.com.