Secrecy or Publicity?

It’s difficult when more people start frequenting our favorite places, write Bend-area residents Nancy Burgon and Todd Wells. These avid hikers struggled with whether to share their knowledge of some of their favorite eastern Oregon locales like the Owyhee Canyonlands. But they decided in the end that, for the sake of the land, it’s worth it. Here, they share their ethical journey. 

“The changes in our life must come from the impossibility to live otherwise, according to the demands of our conscience…” Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Since we retired 10 years ago, our passion has been day hiking in remote and less-traveled public lands of the Inland Northwest, including the deserts of central and southeastern Oregon. Like others who explore off the beaten path, we’ve had the joy of discovering wild and verdant desert stream canyons where willows, alders and cottonwoods flourish and high scenic rims where bighorn sheep and golden eagles thrive undisturbed. Our reaction to finding these special places was, at first, that they absolutely deserved to be preserved and, later, that we now had something of a personal stake in them. Beyond this, though, we frankly didn’t know what to do with our feelings for these places — and we’ve seen our sense of ethical duty to them evolve in three distinct phases over the years:

1. In the beginning, we held a strong, visceral belief: The only way to protect the desert wilderness was to keep it a secret, as then it wouldn’t be overrun by recreational users. For several years, this was our guiding ethic and we were reluctant to talk about where we traveled in the backcountry and what we experienced there, even with family and friends. As we recall, it was a cause of dismay for us at that time whenever a travel article would appear in the local newspaper extolling the virtues of some enchanting and remote desert destination. We feared publicity would ruin the wild places we’d come to hold dear.

2. Over time, though, we had a gradual awakening: The desert wilderness was not a secret to the grazing, mining and off-road interests — and it hasn’t been for over a century. We came to this realization slowly, based upon our encounters over several summers of backcountry travel: We’d met thousands of cows, quite a few buckaroos, numerous ATV enthusiasts and even a geothermal prospector. But in all the desert miles we’d hiked and driven, we hadn’t met any other recreational hikers. Not even one! Nor any photographers, nor bird watchers, nor desert poets. This was an eyeopener and made us realize how skewed the balance of user groups was in this remote desert landscape.

3. This led us to a deeper ethical insight, nearly opposite from where we began: To preserve these wild desert places, it’s essential to build on the constituency of recreational users who love them and will advocate for their protection. After all, much of the desert is public land, managed by public agencies under a multiple-use mandate. For this reason, its grandeur must be publicized and appreciated by a broad citizenry.

Finally, we do feel there are exceptions to this policy of publicity. Any desert attraction within an hour’s drive of a major population center such as Bend or Boise is likely to already receive plenty of attention and recreational pressure. Also, archaeological sites should not be publicized, wherever they are found, as people seem irresistibly compelled to vandalize or deface them. Beyond these, however, we believe the desert needs a human voice, in fact, many human voices. It needs desert artists and photographers to reflect its beauty, it needs desert writers and philosophers to tell its stories, and it needs desert visitors — vacationers, hikers and idlers alike — to share their affections for our remote backcountry and public lands.

— Nancy Burgon and Todd Wells

Postscript: The duo now publishes an online hiking guide called And go HERE for their outings in the Owyhee Canyonlands.