Protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands

Squeeze Rapid in Iron Point Canyon on the Owyhee River in Oregon. Photo by Thomas O'Keefe
Squeeze Rapid in Iron Point Canyon on the Owyhee River in Oregon. Photo by Thomas O’Keefe

By Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater

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 US, 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.

The Owyhee is rich with ancient history. Boaters float past Potters Cave–an historic rock shelter–on river right. Photo by Thomas O'Keefe
The Owyhee is rich with ancient history. Boaters float past Potters Cave–an historic rock shelter–on river right. Photo by Thomas O’Keefe

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 two 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 Canyonland 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.

Iron Point Canyon. Photo by Thomas O'Keefe
Iron Point Canyon. Photo by Thomas O’Keefe Photographs by Michael Pirrocco

Through Wilderness and Wild and Scenic protection, or alternatively, a National Monument designation, we can safeguard the Owyhee’s deep red-rock canyons, rolling plains, wild rivers, and ample recreational opportunities for future generations. Under the conservation alternatives we are considering, 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. Paddlers’ voices will be important in protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands! You can help show your support by signing a petition online at Stay tuned to American Whitewater for more ways that you can help!

–This story first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of the AW Journal.

–Read a trip report from eastern Oregon’s Owyhee River.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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