New Online Community Dedicated to Oregon’s Deserts

Carved by desert rivers winding toward the Pacific, Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands is the largest undeveloped expanse of the American West that lacks any form of permanent protection. Just three paved roads cross an area nearly the size of Massachusetts. Tucked in Oregon’s southeastern corner, the Owyhee offers craggy red-rock canyons to explore and space for diverse wildlife to roam freely, including the largest herd of California bighorn sheep in the nation.  KEEN Effect Grantee, Oregon Natural Desert Association, is entirely focused on protecting this treasure.  ONDA’s Communication Director, Heidi Hagemeier, drew us a great picture of the organization’s history and its plan for the future.

While many equate Oregon with rugged coast and moss-dripped forests, it is also a desert state. Roughly half the state is high desert, punctuated by big vistas, red-rock canyons and vibrant rivers. More than 25 years ago, a group of Oregonians became increasingly concerned that this eastern part of the state had no voice to speak up for its wildlife, public lands and rivers. These self-described “desert rats” founded the Oregon Natural Desert Association to fill that void and champion this special place.

ONDA’s mission is to protect, defend and restore Oregon’s high desert. This manifests in varied ways, from championing land protection to speaking out for fish and wildlife to rolling up obsolete barbed wire fence. So far, ONDA’s efforts have been key in creating the first three desert wilderness areas in Oregon.

We firmly believe that to know Oregon’s desert is to love it. And to love it is to want to protect it. Yet not enough people know about the beauty and ecological significance of the state’s high desert. Even for outdoor enthusiasts, only a few guidebooks offer any information about eastern Oregon, and a Google search more often than not draws a blank.

Our project, a 800 mile trail of dirt, two-track roads, and cross country travel, winds through some of Oregon’s most spectacular natural wonders, and provides the public with new information on how to access the high desert. By assisting outreach for the Oregon Desert Trail, the KEEN Effect has been critical in helping us to rise to this challenge of building greater awareness of and love for eastern Oregon’s vast open spaces, diverse wildlife and stellar recreational opportunities. Once people experience it for themselves, we’re certain they will want to share their newfound passion with others.

ONDA volunteers scout potential routes for the Oregon Desert Trail in the Trout Creek Mountains. The entire trail is on public land and public rights-of-way. Photo by Jeremy Fox

After about three years of surveying every inch of ground to craft this route, ONDA in February released its map, GPS and guide data for the public to enjoy (ONDA.org/OregonDesertTrail). The KEEN Effect is helping us grow the reach of the Oregon Desert Trail: We’re creating an online community. For newcomers, this Web format will provide easy access to trail information, allowing everyone from hard-core distance hikers to outdoor novices to assess which areas of the route are best for them. For those who have been out into Oregon’s high desert, it will offer a place to share information and swap stories.

Long-distance trails reach something deep within our core. There is romance in the possibility of continuing for miles on end through wild places, even if few actually complete the route from end to end. The Oregon Desert Trail definitively taps this. We believe this effort is fostering new outdoor stewards by creating personalized paths to adventure.

For instance, in April high schoolers at the Alzar School in Cascade, Idaho, which focuses on building leadership through experiential learning, was inspired by the Oregon Desert Trail story to backpack a section of the trail in the Owyhee Canyonlands. The teacher focused on themes of team building and appreciation of solitude, turning the Oregon Desert Trail into an outdoor classroom. These teenagers will undoubtedly remember this trip, and it will foster appreciation for and stewardship of the natural world.

Alone, these stories are inspirational; when assembled together in one community hub they become powerful. The Oregon Desert Trail online community does this.

It’s not only a place to share information for a safe journey, to grow camaraderie around outdoor activities and to inspire recreationists to embark on their own adventures. The project fosters a community that has a sense of ownership in the high desert’s well-being.