Why for the Owyhee: A Paddler's Perspective

Thomas O'Keefe is the Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, which is the primary advocate for the protection and restoration of whitewater rivers across the county. Also core to American Whitewater's mission is to ensure that the public can access and enjoy rivers safely. The organization established a Pacific Northwest program in 2006, and has regional offices in Seattle and Bend.

The Owyhee Canyonlands offer a unique backcountry experience for whitewater enthusiasts, and American Whitewater is a member of the Owyhee Coalition in order to protect this special place for generations to come.

We have few places left in the world where one can simply disappear into the landscape and experience a transformative wilderness adventure. Here in the U.S., we find these places in the labyrinth of canyons of southern Utah, beyond the end of the road in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, in the high country of the Cascades and Sierras, and within the ribbons of undeveloped river corridors along the spine of the Appalachians. Most are less familiar with the Owyhee Canyonlands region – a vast, open landscape of 9 million acres, largely managed by the Bureau of Land Management, where the borders of Idaho, Nevada and Oregon meet.

The region offers a unique whitewater experience through a landscape reminiscent of the Old West, containing rolling sagebrush hills, red-rock formations, and deep canyons that soar up to 1,000 feet above the river. The main stem of the Owyhee offers a multi-day river trip popular with rafters, self-support kayakers and canoeists during the spring snow melt. In its tributaries lie more opportunities for exploration and wilderness adventure; they are being discovered by packrafters and those experienced in cross-country multi-sport travel.

The landscape is home to 200 species of wildlife, including California bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope. The Owyhee was also home to the Paiute tribes and contains over 500 archaeological sites. Careful observers will discover writings, rock drawings, pottery, tools, weapons, and other artifacts from ancient people.

Conservation of the Owyhee Canyonlands

The conservation value of the Owyhee River was first recognized more than four decades ago when the river was designated as an Oregon State Scenic Waterway in 1970. In 1984, the Owyhee and South Fork Owyhee were designated as federal Wild and Scenic Rivers and the North Fork and West Little Owyhee were added in 1988. In 2009, half a million acres of public lands in Idaho were protected as the Owyhee River Wilderness and 325 additional river miles were designated Wild and Scenic, including the Jarbidge, Bruneau, and several other tributaries of the Owyhee.

Despite the long history of conservation achievements, much of the landscape in Oregon remains unprotected – some 2 million acres of wilderness quality federal lands in total. The Owyhee Canyonlands area represents the largest conservation opportunity in the coterminous United States.

The Owyhee Canyonlands region is wild country and our goal is to keep it that way. American Whitewater is working with our partners in the conservation community on the Owyhee Canyonlands Campaign to develop a conservation vision that will permanently protect the area’s unique ecology, healthy wildlife habitat, rich ancient history, and fascinating geology.

Resource extraction has quickly taken hold throughout other areas of the West, with devastating impacts. Not surprisingly, pressure is mounting on the Owyhee too. The landscape in Oregon currently has no safeguards against resource extraction, which, if developed, would severely affect the unique recreational experiences and important wildlife habitat of the region.

Through Wilderness and Wild and Scenic protection, we can safeguard the Owyhee’s deep red-rock canyons, rolling plains, wild rivers, and ample recreational opportunities for future generations. Under the Owyhee Canyonlands Conservation Proposal, new extractive uses like mining and oil and gas development would not be allowed. At the same time, recreational activities like fishing, boating, hunting, and hiking would continue, as would working farms and ranches.

By taking action now, we can protect the unique and ecologically significant areas of the Owyhee. You can help show your support by signing the petition online. Paddlers’ voices will be important in protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands!

-- Thomas O'Keefe