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Oregon’s Newest State Park Opens Next Week on the John Day River

September 18, 2013

Western Rivers Conservancy and OPRD conserve 16,000 acres along the West’s longest free-flowing river.

WASCO, Oregon – Next week, Oregon’s newest state park will open to the public. When it does, a sweeping expanse of canyon country along the lower John Day River will be open to hikers, anglers, birders, campers and anyone else with a penchant for wild rivers and wide-open skies.

The 8,000-acre park is the result of a larger conservation acquisition by Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC), a Portland-based nonprofit that buys land along the West’s most outstanding streams for the sake of fish, wildlife and people. WRC purchased the land, formerly known as Murtha Ranch, for its exceptional conservation values and because 16 miles of West’s longest free-flowing river runs through the property.
WRC began conveying the lands to Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) in 2009. Now, five years in the making, the park will open as a wild and rugged alternative to the more developed properties in Oregon’s state park system.

“OPRD shares our conservation vision and makes the perfect steward for this spectacular and biologically important stretch of the John Day River,” says Sue Doroff, WRC’s President.

Cottonwood Canyon State Park conserves over 16 miles of riverbank along both sides of the lower John Day. It spans more than 8,000 acres of native shrub-steppe grasslands and includes an additional 8,000 acres managed by WRC. Inside the park, the John Day has carved a dramatic canyon into the landscape, exposing cliffs of columnar basalt that tower hundreds of feet over the river. OPRD’s vision is to manage the entire 16,000-plus acres as high-quality fish and wildlife habitat and to provide visitors a unique wilderness-like experience.

The park is home to rare animals like burrowing owls, sagebrush lizards and bighorn sheep.  Chinook salmon and one of the Pacific Northwest’s healthiest runs of native summer steelhead return to the river each year to spawn. The John Day’s upper reaches hold rainbow and bull trout, and the lower river supports a non-native small-mouth bass fishery that attracts anglers from all over the state. At the park’s northern end, Hay Creek, the largest cold-water tributary on the lower river, enters the John Day and provides critical spawning and rearing habitat for steelhead.

These are the characteristics that attracted WRC to Murtha Ranch. When the property went up for sale, WRC saw an incredible conservation opportunity. Working in partnership with the Wyss Foundation, WRC purchased the property and held it until OPRD could take title to the land. The Wyss Foundation is a private, charitable foundation dedicated to conserving the West’s most iconic landscapes and strengthening people’s connection to the land. For WRC, it made the perfect partner.

“Over the past century, Oregon has led the way in setting aside the parks and open spaces that make people want to visit, live, and work in the state,” said Hansjörg Wyss, of Wilson, Wyoming, who created the Wyss Foundation in 1998.  “By working to protect Cottonwood Canyon and this wild stretch of the John Day River for everyone to experience and explore, the local communities and partners have written another proud chapter in Oregon’s conservation story.”

In anticipation of the park opening, WRC, its partners and community volunteer crews conducted streamside restoration work on lower Hay Creek and along five miles of the main-stem John Day. OPRD also conducted restoration work along the main-stem and recently wrapped up work on a small picnic area, a welcome station and a primitive campground—all in time for the grand opening next week.

“The John Day River is an Oregon treasure and critical to the survival of wild salmon and steelhead,” says Doroff. “That we were able to conserve such an important stretch of the lower river and preserve a huge tract of shrub-steppe habitat in the process makes us very proud. I think Cottonwood Canyon will soon be as dear to the hearts of Oregonians as it is to us.”

The park visitor center is located next to the Cottonwood Bridge on Highway 206, one hour east of The Dalles. 

About Western Rivers Conservancy
Western Rivers Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that protects outstanding river ecosystems in the western United States. WRC acquires lands along rivers to protect critical habitat and to create or improve public access for compatible use and enjoyment. By cooperating with local agencies like Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation and by applying decades of experience in land acquisition, WRC secures the health of whole ecosystems. It has protected hundreds of miles of stream frontage on great rivers like the Sandy, the Hoh, the Salmon (ID), the Snake, the Alsea, the North Santiam and the John Day.

Founded in in Portland in 1988, WRC is the nation's only conservation program dedicated solely to the protection of riverlands. Earlier this year, WRC opened a third office, its Interior West office, in Denver, Colorado. To learn more about WRC, visit

About the Wyss Foundation
The Wyss Foundation is a private, charitable foundation dedicated to supporting innovative, lasting solutions that improve lives, empower communities, and strengthen connections to the land. To learn more, visit

About Cottonwood Canyon State Park
Cottonwood Canyon State Park will open to the public on Wednesday, September 25. For more information about Cottonwood Canyon State Park, please visit:

For hi-resolution photos for use in pieces about this project, please visit: Photographer credits are required for use. 


Sue Doroff, President
Western Rivers Conservancy                                          
Email Sue

Danny Palmerlee, Communications Director
Western Rivers Conservancy
Email Danny