BLM completes 11,000 acre acquisition around John Day River

The John Day River flows through the Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. (John Gottberg Anderson/Bulletin file photo)

Campers, boaters, bikers and others who love the adventure of Oregon’s wild eastern half had reason to celebrate Wednesday after the Department of the Interior announced it had completed the acquisition of 11,149 acres of previously inaccessible land along the John Day River and Thirtymile Creek.

The land, which had served as ranchland dating back to the late 19th century, will now be administered by the Bureau of Land Management and open for public use and recreation, according to Lisa Clark, spokeswoman for the agency. Previously some of the land in the John Day Wild and Scenic River area was only accessible by boat.

“This area provides a rich variety of recreation opportunities throughout the year, including hunting, fishing, horseback riding, hiking, skiing, camping, and whitewater rafting — pursuits that are also vital to the state’s economy,” U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a press release.

The BLM plans to survey the area for cultural relics, eagle nesting grounds and other areas of importance, Clark said.

“John Day is a primitive river. Previously you would have had to boat maybe three days between launch sites,” Clark said. “Now there will be more access to tens of thousands of acres of land.”

Prior to the acquisition, river users would have needed permission from the ranch owners to get through the gates to the few roads that traverse the area. The gates will continue to remain closed in winter in order to protect wildlife from vehicle intrusions, Clark said, but the area will still be accessible to hikers year-round.

The property was acquired from Portland-based Western Rivers Conservancy for $8 million, using money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded in large part by federal revenues from offshore oil and gas development.

The conservancy purchased the land in 2014 and 2018 from Rattray Ranch and Campbell Ranch, respectively. A portion of the land, 4,083 acres, was transferred to BLM lands in early 2018. The agreement was completed this week with the transfer of an additional 7,068 acres.

The Rattray Ranch portion is located on Thirtymile Creek in Gilliam County near the town of Condon.

The acquisition will enable conservation and restoration on 4 miles of the creek and conserve 10 miles of river frontage on the John Day River. The largest herd of bighorn sheep in Oregon, with an estimated 600 to 650 animals, can be found on the ranch. Mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, pronghorn antelope and cougars are among the species living here.

The 281-mile John Day River is the second-longest undammed river in the continental United States, making it one of the few remaining wild fish runs in the Pacific Northwest. Endangered bull trout, summer steelhead, chinook salmon and redband trout are a few of the species found there.

“People can now experience a spectacular stretch of one of the West’s great Wild and Scenic River corridors,” Sue Doroff, president of Western Rivers Conservancy, said in a statement. “At the same time, they can take pride in knowing that the lands they’re exploring are protected for the fish and wildlife — animals they will very likely see while visiting this special place.”

The newly acquired land, to be managed by the BLM’s Prineville District, may also hold important evidence of Native American habitation, Clark said.

The BLM will create a management plan for the trails, roads and creeks located on the former ranchland. The process is expected to take about a year and will be conducted with public input, said Clark.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, 
mkohn@bendbulletin.com

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