The thing that strikes me first about the John Day River canyon in winter is the silence. With no whitewater or even riffles to speak of for long stretches, the river slips through the open canyon without so much as a ripple. It's a consuming quiet where only the dip of the oars punctuates the solitude. The clanking of a thermos off the steel hull of our weathered drift boat reverberates down the canyon. The thought of a landscape so oversized with so little in it - save what the forces of time have deposited here: rock, a few gnarled junipers and stiff, brown desert grasses - is almost difficult to comprehend. Massive basalt pillars and canyon walls climb hundreds of feet from the valley floor, crowding the horizon and lending a prehistoric feel. It's probably no coincidence that some of North America's richest fossil beds are located in this river valley that stretches almost 300 miles from its headwaters in the Elkhorn Mountains to its confluence with the Columbia. It's one of the longest un-dammed rivers in the western United States and one of the most remote in Oregon where much of the river winds through historic homesteads and sprawling ranches.
The valley is steeped in history. Gold prospectors, pioneers, homesteaders, sheep and cattle barons, and, perhaps most famously, a charismatic cult of gun-toting New Age spiritualists have all staked their claim on the John Day. These days though it's more about lifestyle than making a living. Investors have bought up many of the big ranches to use as their personal playgrounds. One of the biggest ranches that we floated through on a recent two-day trip is owned by Old Mill developer Bill Smith. But for a century and a half the John Day River valley's hardscrabble homesteaders and ranchers put the land to work. The hills have been grazed, the forests have been cut and river diverted to feed thirsty crops. But as the ranching, farming and timber industries continue their decline, some are arguing that leaving some the last wild places alone might be the best thing for some of the struggling rural economies of Central and Eastern Oregon. Conservationists aren't the only ones getting behind the idea.
Over the past several months Wasco, Wheeler and Jefferson County all signed on in support of a new federal Wilderness proposal along the John Day River, in part because some in Eastern Oregon don't see conservation and concepts like wilderness as the threat that they once did. And in some cases individual communities are embracing the idea that they can cash in, albeit it modestly, on travelers who are exploring the wild areas of eastern Oregon. While even the loudest proponents of new and expanded federal wilderness designations say the economic benefits shouldn't be overstated, some small communities that are desperate for economic development aren't dismissing the possibility that a new wilderness area in their backyard could be a draw for visitors.
The town of Mitchell (pop. 175), for example, already touts its proximity to the Painted Hills and other wild areas, but it is not really positioned to cash in on those visitors, said Aaron Killgore, who serves as the John Day Coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a conservation group that has identified more than 175,000 acres of potentially new wilderness areas in the river basin. Killgore has been working with the economic revitalization committee in Mitchell and said he knew the town could do more to promote itself as a "gateway" when he learned their was nowhere to rent a horse despite ample backcountry riding opportunities. When he asked where they directed rock hounds who tend to frequent the lower John Day he was told that the Mitchell points them to Fossil, another small town that no doubt appreciates the referral. But Killgore points out that redirecting visitors doesn't do much for Mitchell.
Killgore and others at ONDA said they're aware that Wilderness alone isn't an economic development strategy or a cure-all for the economic woes of towns like Mitchell.
"We don't think this is going to mean a flood of new visitors. This isn't going to be the Grand Canyon," said Killgore, who helped broker the most recent wilderness proposal, The Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven wilderness areas that were introduced into Congress last month.
The bill would add roughly 10,000 acres of new public lands in the John Day, including roughly four miles of riverfront along the lower John Day, while opening access to roughly 15,000 acres of land that was previously inaccessible to the public. The deal is essentially a four-way land swap between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and several private landowners, including Bend's Smith. Unlike the Badlands that was ten years in the making, the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven wilderness legislation appears to be on the fast track, in part because the proposal was well received by some of the rural communities around the area.
If the bid is successful it could clear the way for other potential wilderness areas in Mitchell's backyard. ONDA staff have been talking to landowners around Sutton Mountain, a BLM managed area just north of Mitchell, about the possibility of adding the area to the wilderness inventory. Along with Sutton there are two other areas totaling about 40,000 acres already designated as Wilderness Study Areas, meaning that they've already been evaluated by the federal government and deemed to be worthy of consideration for inclusion in the nation's wilderness inventory, that ONDA is looking at.
Former Madras Mayor Rick Allen recently boated through the newly proposed wilderness area along the John Day on excursion organized by ONDA that included myself. Allen, a Republican, who recently served as the point person for a large destination resort development in the Metolius River basin that was rebuffed in the last session, is a big believer in local decision making when it comes to land use management and planning. But he sees some opportunity for Eastern and Central Oregon in proposals like the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven wilderness, which have broad based support. In many cases tourists and travelers are looking for something besides just a place to top of the tank or grab a soda when the stop on their way to or from the river.
"It's the charm of these little towns that is part of the draw for tourists." Allen says.
But Allen, whose hometown bills itself as the gateway to the Deschutes River, is pragmatic about the limitations of tourism, especially in rural Eastern Oregon.
"That probably doesn't feed a Les Schwab. It doesn't keep the co-op going and the fertilizer place open. It's complicated and those communities are struggling with that," Allen says.
Still there is plenty of research to indicate that communities with wilderness and other protected areas, including national parks, profit from their proximity to areas that have been designated as worthy of protection, benefit from their proximity to those places. In a study that ONDA commissioned t examine the potential economic benefits of designating the Badlands area outside of Bend as a federal wilderness area, the Montana-based non-profit research firm Headwaters Economics found that counties with protected federal lands, including wilderness, outperformed their counterparts in a number of key economic indicators, including per capita income, job and population growth.
"There is a lot of complaining about public lands, but from an economics perspective having public lands is a good thing and demonstrably so," said Ben Alexander who helped write the Badlands report for ONDA.
It's a phenomenon that has played out not just across the Western United States, but also around the world where entrepreneurs and educated members of the workforce are seeking out so-called quality of life destinations, identifying the places they want to live and locating there. Wilderness and other protected areas like national parks, it turns out, factor significantly into those decisions. In some cases, the transplants bring their businesses or their jobs with them, in other cases the jobs are following the skilled workforce, explained Alexander.
A Yale educated economist who lives in Missoula, Alexander said there are clear statistical relationships that can be established between positive economic indicators and the proximity of protected federal lands, particularly in more rural areas. And while it's difficult, if not impossible to demonstrate a tangible benefit of a small wilderness area outside Seattle, it's much easier to establish the relationship between job growth and income gains in places like Bend and Bozeman. Ironically, it gets a little more difficult for small rural places like Mitchell, Alexander says. That's because the larger benefits of wilderness have less to do with visitor numbers and more to do with the fact that wilderness areas and other recreational beacons tend to attract people who ultimately decide to relocate there to be closer to those amenities.
I asked Alexander if it is more about the resource, the fact that there is a huge mountain range with ample public access, for example, than applying a label like wilderness to a place that is inherently beautiful? But he doesn't think so based on his organization's research. Federally designated roadless areas, for instance, often have high resource values, old growth timber, mountain peaks and uninterrupted vistas, but there is very little correlation between the presence of a roadless area and improved economic indicators for neighboring communities. It turns out the parking areas, the interpretive signs and those highlighted areas on the Rand McNally map have a tangible benefit, at least from a macro-economic perspective.
But that can be a tough sell in rural areas where distrust of the federal government is a common refrain. While Killgore said ONDA's wilderness related work was well received by the economic revitalization team in Mitchell, Killgore got a very different response when he showed up at a recent town council meeting to discuss the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven areas. What he got was an earful from a small group of residents who were angry about road closures and wild fires that they saw as a product of federal land management policy. But turning back the clock isn't answer for the rural West either, said Alexander. Competition from beyond our boarders and improved efficiencies has driven down the price of traditional commodities like timber and cattle to the point that those industries are no longer able to sustain communities. Those places that can't, or won't, diversify face the prospect of a future of ever diminishing returns.
"If all of rural America is trying to compete on prices for commodities, it's a classic race to the bottom. Much of Montana and eastern Oregon are classic examples of pursuing that policy," Alexander says.
So what's left after the mill goes idle and the cattle ranch itself goes on the auction block? Maybe not much, but in a place like the John Day where roughly 20,000 people set out to raft the river from Twickenham boat launch outside Mitchell and scores of hunters descend every fall in pursuit of an elusive elk, the focus could be turning to tourism. Other eastern Oregon towns are already testing those waters. Condon, for example, has a newly refurbished hotel that hosts wine tastings and other weekend attractions aimed at drawing Portlanders into the region. The town even boasts a Powell's Books.
But Killgore is quick to point out that things are different in Mitchell and Fossil that have no easy access and little to build on in the way of attractions. While Killgore and others at ONDA acknowledge that new wilderness designations could offer something to promote, in and of itself wilderness is not an economic engine.
"The communities themselves usually have a pretty clear understanding of what wilderness is and what opportunities wilderness can afford. We don't oversell that. We realize places are already attractive to hunters and fisherman if it's along a river... It's something that's complimentary to the other assets of a community," said Brent Fenty, ONDA's executive director.
That last point is one that Alexander also stresses. Towns like Mitchell need to have develop or possess other assets if they want capitalize on the fact that they are located in close proximity to a protected federal area like the proposed Horse Heaven wilderness. That's because the long term and most significant economic benefit isn't the visitors who come and go. It's the visitors who and stay.
A deal with some interesting history
The ranch was later purchased by Montana construction and mining magnate Dennis R. Washington who donated the entire property to the Young Life church, a Christian youth organization that runs similar camps around the country which serve as wilderness retreats. Washington's generosity didn't end there. He gave another $30 million in 2008 to help the Young Life expand its summer camp. Those plans include a massive outdoor waterpark that is currently under construction.