The clock is ticking for Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands

By David Moryc. David is American Rivers' Senior Director of Wild & Scenic Rivers and Public Lands.

There is a saying in conservation that you can win a million times, but you dare not lose even once. That certainly goes for the Owyhee Canyonlands in southeastern Oregon, where one defeat could spell the loss of a truly unique natural resource.

The Owyhee Canyonlands is the largest intact, unprotected area left in the lower 48 states. The diverse lands and waters of the Owyhee are home to over 200 species of wildlife, and this vast landscape is critical to help species adapt to the effects of climate change. The Owyhee River is an angler’s dream with world- class fishing for brown trout, and the watershed is a refuge to a beloved native species, the Redband Trout.

This incredible place is under threat from industrial oil and gas development, thoughtless damage to and theft from cultural sites, and now mining. Oregon’s Department of Geology and Mineral Industries issued a report last month that found the area has “high potential” for mining lithium, bentonite (aka kitty litter), uranium, gold, and other minerals.

Mines, oil derricks and other development have fragmented too many other lands and waters across the country. We have seen the effects of mining on our special places first hand here in Oregon at the Formosa copper and zinc mine in the Umpqua River watershed near Riddle. After demand for metals crashed and the mine was abandoned, the system to handle the mine wastes failed, discharging poisonous water that even today is still killing everything within 18 miles of a creek where salmon once spawned and threatening Riddle’s water supply. The foreign-owned mining company simply walked away, saddling us taxpayers with a $10 million cleanup bill.

All of this could happen in the Owyhee country because 95% of the area currently has no form of permanent protection. And after seeing so many incredible places vanish to boom-and-bust industries, I am afraid that it is just a matter of time before the Owyhee suffers the same fate. Fortunately, Senators Wyden and Merkley have taken the first step to protect the area from mining with a bill in Congress that would prevent the filing of new mining claims on 2 million acres in the Owyhee.

Any approach to permanently preserving the Owyhee country should protect existing economic activities, respect the rights of Native American tribes who have called this place home for thousands of years, and ensure continued public access, especially for hunting and fishing, while expanding outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities. Despite overtures from conservation groups, opponents of protecting Oregon’s Owyhee have for decades been unwilling to come to the table to discuss a sustainable future for area. This has to change. Instead of heated arguments fought with sound bites, costly television ads and billboards, it is time to sit down and do the hard work of forging common sense protections the Owyhee deserves before it’s too late.

Because we can continue to fight to protect the Owyhee one lease, development project, or mining proposal at a time. But if we lose just once, we may lose this incredible place forever.

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