The Owyhee Canyonlands is world-class. This means unparalleled camping, rafting, hunting, fishing and stargazing for locals and visitors. For the 300 wildlife species that also call this place home, it means healthy, connected habitat. And it means clear, clean water for everyone. Today, the Owyhee is a healthy, intact, remote place – a truly rare, special thing in an increasingly busy, crowded, and developed world.
But the Owyhee’s future is uncertain. Today, very real threats are clawing at the edges of this Oregon treasure.
95% of Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands Has No Form of Permanent Protection
What exists on the ground now is a recipe for an Owyhee fragmented by webs of roads, lights, and other boom-and-bust development. Existing laws are only a patchwork approach that could allow these industrial uses to degrade this wild place. Only permanent protection provided by tools such as National Conservation Area, Wilderness, or National Monument designations guarantee that the Owyhee will stay the way it is.
People thought that places like the Jonah Field near Pinedale, Wyoming would be protected by existing Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rules and regulations. Now public lands that were once prime wildlife habitat and remote and wild like the Owyhee are an industrial facility.
Industrial Oil and Gas Development Would Forever Spoil the Owyhee
According to the Vale BLM, there are more than 170,000 acres of active gas leases in Malheur County, just north of the Owyhee Canyonlands. As these leases are developed, the land is chopped up by webs of roads, lights, gates, and fences, bringing traffic, noise and pollution – and limiting access – to once-pristine areas.
Before: Pinedale, Wyoming. Satellite image, 1986. Largely undeveloped sagebrush steppe managed via similar BLM rules and regulations that are found in the Owyhee today.
After: Pinedale, Wyoming. Satellite image, 2008. Area developed into Jonah natural gas field. Graded well pads and connecting access roads are clearly visible. Each pad covers an area of 3-4 acres. Open pits of waste drilling fluids appear as dark spots on many of the pads.
You don’t have to look far to see these impacts. Just across the Oregon state line in places like Payette, Idaho, communities are struggling to understand what a boom in natural gas development will do to their water quality and way of life – with few answers coming from the companies that profit (Transparency would benefit Idaho’s Oil & Gas Industry, Idahoans. Idaho Statesman, 2016; Pressured to Lease?Independent Enterprise, 2015).
Mining Impacts Would Limit Access to Public Lands, Destroy Wildlife Habitat and Potentially Pollute Rivers and Streams
A 2016 report from the Oregon Department of Geology & Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) identifies signficant mining potential for gold, uranuim, silver, bentonite (also known as kitty litter), and other valuable minerals throughout the Owyhee Canyonlands. Proposals for goldand uranium are already in motion at the edges of the Owyhee and large areas of the Owyhee remain open to new mining proposals. Scars on the land from mining and water pollution from cyanide leaching and acid mine drainage can last forever. Industrial development also limits access to our public lands when privately owned facilities put up gates and fences.
Sacred Native American Sites are Being Damaged and Desecrated
The Owyhee was inhabited for over 13,000 years by semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers who are ancestors of the modern-day Northern Paiute, Bannock and Shoshone tribes. These tribes continue to use these sacred lands today. More than 500 archaeological sites have been found in the Owyhee. Unfortunately, at places Dirty Shame Rockshelter, Potters Cave and elsewhere, tribal members, archeologists and raft guides have witnessed the removal of ancient artifacts and destruction of irreplaceable petroglyphs – troubling trends that have been increasing throughout the West. A protective designation for this area will open up additional resources to care for, monitor and protect these important sites, while limiting further damage from industrial development.
Irresponsible Off-Highway Vehicle Use is Damaging this Fragile Landscape
Hundreds of miles of routes currently exist in the Owyhee Canyonlands where off-highway vehicle (OHV) use is an appropriate way to enjoy the landscape. But in recent years, irresponsible riders have been carving new paths through sagebrush, tearing up fragile soil and disturbing wildlife habitat. These new paths fragment this sensitve landscape – which is so delicate that the tracks of one vehicle that drove over the land can be seen for decades. Permanent protection would provide clear, longstanding guidelines for appropriate OHV use, as well as an increased capacity for enforcement and user education in order to stop the damage we are seeing today.
More Pressure Around the Edges
With these development pressures and changes come an increased urgency to ensure we protect the most important ecological, recreational and cultural places in the Owyhee.