Ken Snider: Owyhee Canyonlands

November 19, 2004

The images cast upon the screen transported us to an area so large, so remote and so undeveloped that, seen from space, it is the darkest spot in the lower 48 states. More than three million roadless acres of spectacular sheer-walled river canyons, erosion carved monoliths, rolling high desert plateaus and vast lava fields complete with eerie craters, cones, tubes and spires.

The Owyhee Canyonlands—a magnificent natural treasure—exists not in some distant land, but right in our own backyard, extending from southeastern Oregon into Nevada and Idaho.

A nearly full house at the November 19 potluck was introduced to the Owyhee Canyonlands by Ken Snider, chair of the High Desert Committee of the Sierra Club’s Oregon chapter. Chris Stockdale met Ken while camping and was so impressed with all that he knew and had to say about Owyhee that she immediately pushed for an Obsidian invite to come and speak to us. “A Landscape to Love” was the title of the presentation and Snider, who came down from Portland for the occasion, left no doubt that his relationship with the Owyhee Canyonlands is, indeed, a love affair.

Millions of years of volcanism, earth shifting and erosion have carved this dramatic and diverse landscape. Part of the Great Basin ecosystem, the Canyonlands sprawl as well into the Snake River Plateau. In elevation, the canyon spans from over 9,000 feet in Nevada’s Jarbidge Wilderness down to 4,000 feet at the confluence of the Owyhee and Snake Rivers. This wide range of habitat accounts for the area’s great diversity of plant and wildlife—including many unique and endangered species.

Ken noted that “Jarbidge” was the Native American word for “monster”—a word that not only describes some of the geological wonders found here, but some of the discoveries from the region’s prehistoric past, including, believe it or not, a sabertoothed salmon!

From the sage grouse to the eagle and endangered peregrine falcon and from tunnel-digging frogs to bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope, the Canyonlands are home to an amazing variety of wildlife. Ranging from sagebrush steppe to high elevation forests to lush riparian areas, the Canyonlands also accommodate a surprising array of plant life, including such rare plants as the inch-high lupine and Trout Creek milkvetch . . . and wildflowers galore.

As slide after slide appeared, accompanied by Snider’s narration, we were struck not only by the raw beauty being presented, but by the intimidating scale . . . by how tiny and insignificant any human being seemed against the natural background. And by the isolation and silence that many of the vistas conveyed. In one picture of rafters drifting between sheer towering cliffs, you could almost imagine your own breath echoing against the walls.

And, yet, as wonderful and as precious as this area is, most of it is unprotected. Under the supervision of the Bureau of Land Management, some areas have been set aside as wilderness study areas (15 within the Oregon portion of Owyhee Canyonlands). Less than half the acreage within such study areas have been recommended for wilderness status. In contrast, conservationists have identified over 1.3 million acres in Owyhee as deserving wilderness consideration. The current political scene, with the Administration discouraging new wilderness applications, makes the situation difficult.

Threatening the Owyhee Canyonlands ecosystem are grazing (“Eat all the cows you can,” urged Snider); mining (there are 1,162 mining claims in Malheur County alone); invasion of non-native species; and off-road vehicles. If a photo is worth a thousand words, the picture of what off-road vehicles had done to the terrain just outside the fence of a wilderness study area spoke volumes. The dramatic contrast in vegetation was amazing. So were the photos showing the impact of cheatgrass upon the native grasses of the region. The crust protecting the surface of the high dessert terrain can last eons, but is easily broken by hooves and tires. Once broken, the surface can take forever to recover, with invasive species and erosion taking over in the interim.

And don’t ask about the ugliness and destruction wrought by mining! If gold prices rise, we can look forward to a cyanide leach mine on Grassy Mountain near the Owyhee Reservoir. Mining laws dating back to 1872 allow anyone to stake a claim on public lands without consideration of environmental consequences.

For information on what you could do to support the Sierra Club’s Owyhee Canyonlands Protection Campaign and other conservation efforts involving the High Desert Committee, check out or contact the Sierra Club’s Oregon Chapter in Portland 503-238-0442.

— Marshall Kandell

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