Tucked in the corners of Oregon, Idaho and Nevada is the Owyhee Canyonlands. Known for its rugged terrain and wild waters that host hundreds of species of fish and wildlife, the Owyhee is truly one of the West’s largest conservation opportunities. 

In Idaho, over 500,000 acres of the Owyhee landscape are protected as Wilderness, but the Oregon portion of Owyhee remains unprotected. As the looming threats of development and climate change encroach on the Owyhee’s borders, local community members, ranchers, tribes, recreationists and the sporting community have sounded the alarm for permanent protection of this one-of-a-kind landscape.  

photo credit: Sage Brown

A bit of history 

In current efforts seeking protection for the Owyhee, advocates frequently say that it has been an ongoing discussion for three decades. Actually, the importance of the Owyhee ecosystem has been recognized for nearly a century.  In 1928, a Congressional report regarding the importance of western lands for recreation, hunting and fishing talked specifically about the Owyhee.   

“…The area is well stocked with antelope, mule deer, sage chickens and ruffed grouse. The trout fishing is above the average and roads are mighty few.” 

photo credit: Sage Brown

Today’s Owyhee status

There are still antelope, mule deer and grouse, and you can add chukar partridge, California bighorn sheep and elk to the list. And while trout fishing is still above average, the number of roads, both legal and illegal, are no longer “mighty few”. Those using the roads aren’t bumping along in Model T’s either.   

Simply put, this landscape is being asked to do a lot and with pressures from climate change, mineral extraction, transmission corridors, grazing and motorized travel; something needs to be done now to preserve this place for future generations.   

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) recognizes this. Maybe he read the 1928 report stating that “It might be appropriate to reserve in public ownership a system of well selected campgrounds, if any such still remain in public ownership, for the benefit and use of the hunters and fishermen visiting the region.”  

Owyhee Sage grouse pair. photo by Devlin Holloway

While acknowledging the need for more than campgrounds, the Senator has invested significant political capital in trying to find solutions. His table team, including ranchers, conservationists, hunters and anglers have put forth innovative legislation that would protect this landscape. It would give ranchers the flexibility to adapt to the changing climate and the fickle moisture of this desert ecosystem, all while having local oversight on projects to improve rangelands and wildlife habitat. But passing this legislation has proved easier said than done. It takes both houses of Congress to pass legislation, and significant headwinds persist in the House, making legislative success for this bill an uphill battle this Congress. 

Another path

Trout Unlimited and other sporting groups now see the Antiquities Act as a viable path for protection.  While still supporting the Wyden legislation, our groups have embarked on a parallel path to raise the profile of the Owyhee with the current Administration and seek a national monument designation via the Antiquities Act for this stunning and important landscape. 

TU has long supported the Antiquities Act as a way to protect and enhance fish and wildlife habitat while also providing recreational access and grazing. (Last year, TU and other partners published a report on Monuments where you can read more about these successes.) 

The Antiquities Act has been used numerous times in the past to set aside important landscapes when Congressional gridlock has made Wilderness legislation unobtainable. It has even been known to break this gridlock.  

One thing is clear, to continue to negotiate and obfuscate is not getting us anywhere. The time is now to protect the Owyhee.  

photo credit: Sage Brown

It was recognized in the 1928 report, “The Owyhee Country, then, is a region of outstanding recreational importance demanding further careful study to determine what form of reservation and administration is best adapted to it,” and it remains true to this day.  

The time is now. Join TU in asking President Biden to designate the Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument.

By Michael Gibson.