The John Day River looms large in the minds of conservationists and river enthusiasts. It is the Pacific Northwest’s longest undammed river and one of the longest Wild and Scenic River corridors. It has the healthiest run of wild summer steelhead in the Columbia River basin, where they are listed as a Threatened species. The John Day is a stronghold for fall and spring Chinook, while bull trout, listed throughout their range as Threatened, thrive in the river’s upper reaches. As a large, relatively intact natural river system, free of hatcheries, remote from urbanizing pressures and having high potential for restoration, the John Day is extraordinary not just for Oregon, but for the entire West.
In September 2008, Western Rivers Conservancy purchased 16 miles of property along both banks of the John Day, which included the 8,015-acre Murtha Ranch and its 8,000-acre Bureau of Land Management grazing lease.
The acquisition conserves a vast reach of John Day canyon land and protects extensive and continuous expanses of native shrub-steppe habitat. This low-rainfall, open grassland once spanned large parts of the Columbia Plateau, but has been largely replaced by irrigated agriculture. The area is home to a number of rare native species, including Oregon’s largest herd of bighorn sheep; ground-nesting birds like the grasshopper sparrow and burrowing owl; rare birds of prey like the ferruginous hawk and loggerhead shrike; and reptiles like the sagebrush lizard. The property also boasts one of the few steelhead spawning and rearing habitats on the entire lower river: Hay Creek. This spring-fed tributary runs cool and clear year-round and is a vital component of the river’s healthy steelhead runs.
Over a three-year period, WRC conveyed the land to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD). In anticipation of the park’s opening, WRC, its partners and community volunteer crews conducted streamside restoration work along three miles of lower Hay Creek and along five miles of the main-stem John Day. OPRD also conducted restoration work along the main-stem and created a small picnic area, a welcome station and a primitive campground. In September 2013, the property, renamed Cottonwood Canyon State Park, opened to the public as Oregon’s largest state park in a generation.
Now that the ranch is protected and open to the public as a state park, we are developing a pilot grazing program in partnership with OPRD, the BLM and a neighboring rancher. The goal of the program is to use grazing as a management tool to enhance native habitat by reducing the amount of noxious weeds (primarily cheat grass) and increasing the quantity and quality of native grasses. We plan to use short-duration, high-intensity grazing to knock back nonnative grasses, which emerge before native grasses; once the native grasses begin sprouting, we will pull the cows off. As part of the program we are fencing cows out of fragile riparian habitat, streams and wetlands, as well as designing it to be compatible with the area’s recreational uses. In the end, we want to demonstrate that grazing can be an effective conservation management tool that ensures the long-term health of the John Day River, its tributaries and the fish and wildlife that depend on both.
Conserving Murtha Ranch as a state park fills a gap in the 148-mile-long John Day Wild and Scenic River corridor and is an important step in a larger conservation vision for the John Day River. The project has been a tremendous opportunity to enhance low-impact recreation. Public access that is compatible with our conservation goals will offer a premier outdoor experience for anglers, boaters, hikers and hunters. WRC continues to pursue strategic properties to protect this important river system, conserve sensitive and diverse habitats and provide public access.
Critical support for our work on the John Day River was provided by the Autzen Foundation, Bella Vista Foundation, L.P. Brown Foundation, Burch-Safford Foundation, The Collins Foundation, The Conservation Alliance, Cecil & Sally Anne Drinkward Fund of The Oregon Community Foundation, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Fly Fishers Foundation, Gilliam County, Ned and Sis Hayes Fund of The Oregon Community Foundation, Jubitz Family Foundation, Lynn and Jack Loacker, Charlotte Martin Foundation, Mead Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust, My Own Labels, Inc., National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Oregon Community Foundation, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, Oregon Parks Foundation Fund of The Oregon Community Foundation, Oregon State Weed Board, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Portland General Electric, Carol and Velma Saling Foundation, Smith-Welsh Foundation, Weeden Foundation, Westfly, Inc., Wildlife Conservation Society and an anonymous foundation.
August 14, 2014
December 27, 2013
December 22, 2013
September 29, 2013
September 23, 2013
The Oregonian, Front Page
September 22, 2013
October 1, 2011
Northwest Fly Fishing
May 20, 2011
April 1, 2011
Northwest Fly Fishing
December 17, 2010
May 9, 2010
November 25, 2009
Medford Mail Tribune
October 1, 2009
October 13, 2011
September 29, 2009
Mar 20, 2017
Join us on the John Day River for a day of volunteer work!
On Saturday, April 22nd, we’re heading to Cottonwood Canyon State Park to plant, run irrigation lines and cage cottonwood cuttings. As we like to think of it, we'll be putting the 'Cottonwood' back in Cottonwood Canyon State Park.
We hope you’ll come out! We’ll get our hands dirty, have some fun and improve fish and wildlife habitat along and above the river.
Nov 17, 2016
Western Rivers Conservancy is heading to the river this Black Friday when we #OptOutside with REI and millions of others who've decided to skip the madness of the mall and hit the great outdoors. Our destination of choice, of course, is the sweet smelling, soul soothing river, where we'll hike, fish, birdwatch and maybe even do a little winter kayaking. We hope you'll do the same!
To help you decide where to go, here's an abbreviated Field Guide to WRC Rivers--places where we have acquired land to protect habitat and create and improve public river access for all! And if you like these rivers, support our efforts to do more on great rivers around the West.
See you on the river!
The stretch of the John Day that flows through Cottonwood Canyon State Park (and beyond) has outstanding fishing, particularly for summer steelhead and smallmouth bass. Chinook salmon spawn throughout the river, but fishing for them is generally not allowed. Catfish and carp are also found in the lower river. The park is also open to hunting outside the developed area. Check at the visitor station for information and regulations about hunting.
Cottonwood Canyon State Park spans 16 miles of the John Day River. The river flows through the park from south to north, and steep arid canyon lands rise up from the river through much of the property.
The northern part of the ranch, 8000 acres, is the land that was acquired by Oregon State Parks and formally designated as Cottonwood Canyon State Park in September, 2013. Because it is so new, much of the Park is undeveloped, although it is open for visitor use. There is a small visitor center and a campground with 21 “primitive” campsites (you can park your car there and set up your tent or trailer but there aren’t any electrical connections or water faucets right at your campsite; potable water is available in the campground so you will have to carry it to your site) and 7 hiker/biker campsites. These are on the east side of Highway 206 on the north side of the river and are easily accessible by automobile. The visitor center area also provides access to hiking trails up and down the north side of the river.
Across the river from the visitor center is a boat launch called the J.S. Burres day use area. It is a good place to launch or retrieve a boat for float trips/fishing trips on the river and provides access to a 4.3 mile long trail along the south shore of the river. Water levels in the John Day are quite variable so most people float the river in spring and early summer.
Immediately south of the state park are two Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas with many of the same physical features as the State Park – the John Day River and the steep canyons – but without the readily available public access. These 8,000 acres of public land provide outstanding opportunities for solitude and great fishing; the best way to get there is to float downstream.
The park visitor center is just off Oregon Highway 206 about half way between Wasco and Condon. Click here for directions.
Cottonwood Canyon State Park is managed by Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The OPRD website has information about park facilities and the surrounding lands.
The wilderness study areas are managed by the Prineville Office of the BLM. Here is a link to their website.