In the Owyhee Canyonlands of southeastern Oregon, the world unfolds at hip height. Sagebrush, the backbone of this high desert landscape, mostly grows only about that tall, and so Brewer’s sparrows and green-tailed towhees spend their time there too. Mule deer and antelope saunter through with heads bowed to nip at tender buds, and circling red-tailed hawks keep their sharp eyes trained for movement in the twigs. Lower down, pygmy rabbits hop, threatened greater sage grouse court mates and complex relationships between soil, water and insects play out discreetly.
A person can stand in the pungent spray of the sagebrush sea and look over an entire universe that rarely rises higher than their elbow. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so overlooked.
Despite this dominance, shrub and grasslands are some of the least-protected ecosystems in the country. Regal forests and snow-capped mountains are disproportionately represented in the nation’s wilderness protection programs, while sagebrush ecosystems have been cut to pieces by roads, developed for homes and fossil fuel extraction, mined, logged and heavily grazed by cattle. Today, sagebrush occupies only half its historic extent.
However, one gem of the sagebrush steppe still exists, largely untouched, in a rugged and remote corner of southeast Oregon. The Owyhee Canyonlands are home to 2.5 million acres of painted hills, basalt cliffs and free-flowing rivers. The area’s remoteness, its few roads and dark night skies have insulated hundreds of Indigenous ancestral sites and some 350 threatened animal and plant species in one of the largest intact landscapes remaining in the West.
“It’s the last best place in the Lower 48. There’s no other place like it,” said Corie Harlan, an environmental conservationist with the Oregon Natural Desert Association who has been working to win federal protection for the Owyhee. The region has spent the past 50 years engaged in a bitter and sometimes violent dispute between ranchers who depend on access to public land and conservationists who want it taken out of production.
For the first time in a long time, however, Harlan sees light on the horizon. As the impacts of development and climate change have mounted on the landscape, these opposing groups have been backed into the same corner. Now, they are close to finding their way out through an unlikely collaboration that could establish the largest national wilderness area in the contiguous U.S. and create a model for how to share what remains of this neglected landscape.
“This is an ecosystem that you need to tread lightly in,” said Diane Teeman, culture and heritage director for the Burns Paiute Tribe in Burns, Oregon. Her tribe is one of many Paiute and Shoshone tribes whose aboriginal lands encompass the Owyhee and much of the sageland in Oregon, Idaho and Nevada.
In spring, she continues a generations-old practice of collecting bitterroot, biscuitroot and medicinal plants and trapping Western marmot. “We have a reciprocal relationship with everything else,” she said. “I like to think that even the way we go about collecting things helps to improve those things.”
In the 1860s, the land began to change in ways the tribes couldn’t control. First, corporate ranching operations pushed thousands of cattle across the range, watering the animals in sacred springs and streams. Then towns took form, Teeman’s ancestors were pushed out of their homes, and settlers began fencing off property and rerouting streams to irrigate crops. Malheur County, which encompasses the Owyhee Canyonlands, was established in 1887. Although there are now also onion farmers, teachers, health care workers, Kraft Heinz manufacturing technicians, restaurateurs and budtenders, ranchers have long dominated the region’s economy, leaving their mark on its culture and landscape.
Elias Eiguren’s great-grandfather emigrated from Spain’s Basque country and purchased 3,000 acres of ranchland near Jordan Valley the same year the United States entered World War I. Today, Eiguren and his family raise hay and cattle on 700 of those original acres. In March, he is preparing to turn the animals loose for summer grazing on 40,000 acres of public land he leases from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). First, calves will be branded, castrated and vaccinated. “Then we open the gate and kick them out,” he said.
For ranchers, access to public grazing land is essential. Malheur is the poorest county in Oregon, and town economies often depend on ranching. About 94% of the county is rangeland, mostly managed by the BLM for multiple uses, which includes ranching, logging, mining, recreating, as well as maintaining natural and cultural resources. Cows don’t tread lightly, however. Intense grazing erodes soil and beats up brush, and as environmental sentiments have grown alongside interest in outdoor recreation, conservationists have gained traction arguing that public land should be protected rather than offered up for use by private enterprise.
“Those ideas are clashing,” Eiguren said. In 2016, they came to a deadly crescendo about 100 miles due west of Owyhee Canyon, when a group of far-right extremists occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge over — at least superficially — grazing rights. The confrontation was just the most visible example of disagreements that had been plaguing the region for generations.
A few months earlier, Portland, Oregon-based Keen Footwear had launched a campaign to pressure then-President Barack Obama into designating 2.5 million acres of the Owyhee region as a national monument. Conservationists had been pushing for some kind of formal protection to supersede the current patchwork of flimsy federal oversight. A monument designation would also highlight the swift waters, open skies and winding trails of the Owyhee at a time when outdoor recreation was emerging as an influential economic force. But the monument never had broad support.
Locals complained that recreation dollars would flow past their communities, tribes were concerned their access to sacred places may be restricted, and even conservationists like Harlan worried that a monument would pile too much attention onto a vulnerable landscape.
“We never said we wanted a national monument,” Harlan recounted. She would have preferred a wilderness designation for the land — the strongest federal protection — and wild and scenic river status for the waters, but “at the end the day, this landscape needs to be protected,” she said, so ONDA supported it.
To ranchers, the prospect of a national monument presented an imminent economic as well as existential threat.
“It was folks who don’t live in the area inserting themselves in the conversation without being practical about what was happening on the ground,” Eiguren said. He quickly joined the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition for the sole purpose of blocking the proposal.
About a month after the last of the Malheur refuge occupiers had given up their standoff, Malheur County residents overwhelmingly rejected the idea of an Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument in a symbolic vote intended to guide the president’s hand. Their message was heard; Obama established 26 monuments under the Antiquities Act, but none in the Owyhee.
For Eiguren, who by this point recognized that environmentalists would not be going away, it was a short-lived victory that left him contemplating the next step. “We fought off what we don’t want,” he said, “but what the hell is it that we do want?”
While these arguments have been dragging on, the land itself has been changing, sinking deeper into a prolonged drought. Air has become hotter, soil has baked, snowpack has diminished and stream water temperature has risen — all of which is in line with scientific models of climate change.
The Paiute and Shoshone have seen how these changes affect species they depend on, especially native trout. “I’m troubled by what seems like a degradation of the ecosystem’s health,” Teeman said. “So many of those plants and animals that we have a relationship with are disappearing. The soil and overall health looks like it’s deteriorating.”
Many tribes have invested in natural restoration to remove invasive weeds, cut back encroaching juniper, return bends to streams that were straightened for irrigation and plant shade trees to cool the water. Their efforts are preserving the most valuable pockets of intact habitat, but by far, the most unavoidable examples of change are the large and violently intense wildfires.
Fire is nothing new here. Sagebrush and other steppe species depend on it, and tribes have used it to manage the land. In recent years, though, wildfires driven by heavy fuel loads and extreme aridity have grown larger and more intense, outpacing the historic fire regime. Tearing across the landscape at 30 miles an hour, they carbonize old-growth sagebrush, decimate bird and rabbit populations and pave the way for invasive weeds like cheatgrass and medusahead rye, which rise from their ashes. These diminish sage-dependent habitat while adding fuel to future fires.
Eiguren recalls the Long Draw Fire of 2012 with particular horror. The firestorm began with a lightning strike in early July and tore across more than 550,000 acres in just over a week. Some Malheur County ranchers lost a third of their herds and were forced to euthanize many more injured animals. Just a month later, the Holloway Fire burned another 430,000 acres spanning the Oregon-Nevada border. And the fires have kept coming: About 108,000 acres burned in 2013; then 290,000 in 2014; 126,000 in 2015 and another 46,000 in 2016. Last year, 53,000 acres burned in Malheur County.
For Eiguren, it has all been proof of something ranchers already know: drought and a century of heavy grazing have left them exposed. “The problem is we’ve been doing the same thing for so long that we’ve changed the landscape and made it susceptible to giant wildfires and open to infestation by invasives,” he said.
In 2019, buoyed by their successful quashing of the national monument, Malheur’s ranchers came to the table with a compromise. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) mediated conversations with conservationists to finally settle the question of how to manage and protect 2.5 million acres of Oregon’s high desert.
Ranchers agreed to preserve more than a million acres of the Owhyee as national wilderness, in the resulting Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act. The rest would be managed by the BLM with unusually flexible grazing permits that allow cattle to run on shoulder seasons (by switching up grazing patterns they hope to quell wildfires and invasive plants) and with an exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act intended to decouple local decision-making from elephantine federal bureaucracy.
“The nature of compromise means that you’re trying new and somewhat uncomfortable approaches,” Harlan said, noting that some environmentalists scoff at the exemption, which ranchers see as critical. “These are groups that were going toe-to-toe three years ago. We think that trying is a better path forward than the gridlock we’ve experienced.”
Eiguren hopes the bill, should it pass through Congress on its second attempt (a first attempt stalled in 2020), will settle some of the acrimony that has tarnished his relationship with environmental nonprofits over the years. “They look at a cattleman as someone who wants to steal every blade of grass that they can,” he said. “If the land is healthy, then our families and communities will be healthy and our businesses will continue to thrive.”
There is another reason to put this debate in the Owyhee to rest, and it can’t be measured in pasture yields, recreation dollars or ecosystem assessments. The proposed protection area harbors at least 500 known archaeological sites built and occupied by Teeman’s ancestors. An archaeologist by training, she recognizes their value as windows into the past, but says that only scratches the surface.
“The tribe has its own values and considerations, because we have a completely different worldview than the mainstream cattle rancher and mainstream conservationist,” she said. The tribe’s primary goal is to protect its ancestors, who exist in these ancient petroglyphs and rock structures. And she worries that grazing and recreation will be prioritized in ways that aren’t conducive to maintaining the tribe’s relationships with the land.
“We have a responsibility to help other things that aren’t recognized as having personhood,” she said. “Are we doing a good enough job of speaking for those that can’t speak for themselves?”
CORRECTION: This piece was amended to correct the location of the Malheur occupation. It was 100 miles due west of Owyhee Canyon and not east as originally stated.