Western Rivers Conservancy has begun a long-term effort to conserve 16 miles of exceptional wildlands along the lower John Day River in Oregon.
In April 2008, Western Rivers Conservancy signed an agreement to purchase the Murtha Ranch, a stunning stretch of the John Day River celebrated for its fish and wildlife habitat.
In the entire Columbia River basin, precious few corridors remain of wild, unfragmented habitat at this scale – more than 16,000 acres in all.
The ranch includes 8,114 acres of deeded lands and an 8,000-acre Bureau of Land Management grazing lease. This fall, WRC plans to take title to the land and hold the property while a long-term management plan is developed.
The John Day is extraordinary in Oregon and the West for many reasons: It is the nation’s second longest undammed river (after the Yellowstone), at 252 miles. It is also the country’s longest Wild and Scenic River corridor. It has the healthiest run of wild summer steelhead in the Columbia basin, where they are listed as a Threatened species. Fall and spring Chinook and bull trout also have high-quality runs in the upper reaches of the basin.
The Murtha Ranch’s landscape is breathtaking, and it can be restored to even greater beauty and biological health. Desert bighorn sheep roam the rocky canyon. In the uplands, restoring the native shrub-steppe ecosystem will enhance habitat for a number of rare native species, including: ground-nesting birds like the grasshopper sparrow and burrowing owl; birds of prey like the ferruginous hawk and loggerhead shrike; and reptiles like the sagebrush lizard.
Along the river, what was once a tall cottonwood forest can be reestablished on more than 350 acres of the Murtha Ranch’s lowlands. Large trees would shade the river and benefit the entire ecosystem.
The Murtha Ranch also includes the bottom three miles of Hay Creek, a tributary that runs cold and clear year-round. Summer steelhead depend on Hay Creek to spawn and rear.
Conservation of the ranch presents a great opportunity to enhance low-impact recreation. Public access that is compatible with the conservation goals will offer a premier wildland experience for anglers, boaters, hikers and hunters.
Western Rivers Conservancy’s vision is to see the 16,114 acres of deeded and leased lands restored to high-quality native habitat. Conservation of this property will also fill a gap in a 148-mile-long reach of protected land in the lower John Day Wild and Scenic River Corridor, and help complete the larger community vision for conservation activities across the entire John Day River basin.
Critical support for our work on the John Day River has been provided by the Mead Foundation, Weeden Foundation, Charlotte Martin Foundation and Jubitz Family Foundation.