CROOKED RIVER RANCH — The air was chilly Sunday morning as several dozen volunteers gathered near a trailhead at Steelhead Falls Wilderness Study Area northwest of Terrebonne.
The volunteers spent the morning repairing flood damage from a storm earlier this year on public land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Many of the volunteers who worked on the project live in other states and traveled to Bend for a conference of the Conservation Lands Foundation.
“It’s a nice bunch of people, dedicated to conserving our public lands,” said Jonathan Peart, executive director of Friends of Pompeys Pillar, which is based in Billings, Mont. The nonprofit helps to maintain the pillar, a rock formation that bears the only remaining physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark expedition that is visible along their route: William Clark’s signature, which Clark carved in the stone in 1806. The pillar and the Steelhead Wilderness Study Area are both examples of areas the BLM manages for conservation purposes.
The goal of the Conservation Lands Foundation is to support and expand upon the BLM’s conservation work. To do so, it connects a network of groups across the country.
One such group is Friends and Neighbors of the Deschutes Canyon Area, which works with the BLM to maintain the Steelhead Falls Wilderness Study Area.
Board member Mona Steinberg said the Conservation Lands Foundation helped the group get started. “They gave us our first grant,” Steinberg said. The group used the $10,000 grant to establish itself as a nonprofit, said President Cindy Murray.
A storm from this past summer sent a flood into the canyon near Steelhead Falls that washed rocks from a culvert into the wilderness area, Steinberg said. On Sunday, volunteers rebuilt the rock dams that are intended to slow water in the culvert. They also planted native grasses and other plants in areas that suffered erosion near the Steelhead Falls parking lot.
“We’re excited to have this big group of people helping us restore this area,” said Carol Benkosky, district manager for the BLM Prineville District.
Steelhead Falls is one of 86 wilderness study areas, which cover 2.6 million acres in Oregon and Washington, said Jerry Magee, BLM Wilderness and National Landscape Conservation System program lead. “BLM was a land disposal service” during much of the 20th century, Magee said. That changed in 1976, when Congress passed legislation that called for the agency to create an inventory of land under its management that had wilderness characteristics.
The BLM completed its first inventory in 1991 and that year designated the Steelhead Falls Wilderness Study Area. The study area is a temporary designation, and the Oregon Natural Desert Association has for years sought a permanent wilderness area designation that would prevent road construction and other development on the public land.
Only Congress has the power to designate wilderness areas, Benkosky said. “In the meantime, BLM manages the areas to protect their wilderness character.”
The Conservation Lands Foundation was created as an advocacy organization for “all of BLM’s lands that have a conservation mandate,” said board Chairman Ed Norton.
“Friends and neighbors of the Deschutes Canyon Area, and (Oregon Natural Desert Association), they’ve got terrific volunteers,” said Meghan Kissell, campaign communications director for the Conservation Lands Foundation. “It’s a nice opportunity for folks outside Bend to see these conservation lands right here.”