Owyhee River Wilderness Area – A Protected Place

Anita Cussler | 28.10.20

Where wild horses roam, rock spires tower out of sagebrush hills and night skies are illuminated with millions of stars, the Owyhee Canyonlands and surrounding wilderness is like no place left in the western United States. Encompassing an area the size of Massachusetts, the Owyhee River Wilderness Area spans more than 2 million acres in northern Nevada, southwestern Idaho, and southeastern Oregon. Hidden within this vast high desert plateau, deep canyons are carved by the Owyhee, Bruneau, and Jarbidge Rivers. Home to more than 200 wildlife species and inhabited by native peoples for at least 13,000 years, traveling through the Owyhees one cannot help but be transported back in time and feel a deep connection to the land and the resources it provides. Alzar School students are currently exploring these rich lands and, over the course of the next few weeks, we too will be diving into the Owyhee River Wilderness Area, its history, and opportunities.

The vast landscape of the Owyhee River Wilderness Area.

Up until recently, the Owyhee River Wilderness Area has remained largely untouched by development due to its ruggedness and remoteness. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, cattle have historically grazed this country, and ranching families have been the primary users of this public resource. Recognizing additional values of this truly wild space, the 2009 federal government, as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, designated 517,000 acres in Idaho and Oregon as Owyhee River Wilderness Area. This officially protects these lands from future development while preserving the natural and cultural heritage. However, the Omnibus Act still left over 1 million acres of Owyhee Wilderness unprotected in Oregon. Current legislation under the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act has been introduced by Oregon senators to permanently protect this space and has gained wide support from ranchers, conservationists, and recreationists alike. 

Backpackers enter an Owyhee canyon.

Why protect this remote swath of the American West? Apart from preserving the land from development, light pollution, and human impact, the Owyhee Canyonlands offers a truly unique and wild experience not found anywhere else in the lower 48 states. For Alzar School students, experiencing this landscape does more than offer uninhibited natural views. Spending 10 days out in the Owyhee Canyonlands, students will develop independence, confidence, and grit that only comes from experiencing and living in natural environments, far away from the convenience of take-out menus or indoor plumbing. The lessons of self-reliance and resilience that they learn out on the trail carry forward into their lives as they seek out and encounter new challenges. On top of the personal growth that our expeditions into the Owyhee River Wilderness Area provide, experiencing this wild and scenic place lays the foundation for students to become more aware of their role as stewards and citizens of our country’s amazing environments and resources.