Recreationists throughout the Pacific Northwest cherish the John Day River for its spectacular scenery and outstanding fishing, hunting, boating and hiking. This 284-mile Columbia River tributary is the longest free-flowing river west of the Continental Divide, and over half of it is designated as Wild and Scenic. The John Day flows through some of the West’s finest remaining sagebrush-steppe habitat and sustains the Columbia Basin’s healthiest run of wild summer steelhead. It also supports healthy populations of redband rainbow trout, bull trout and a run of wild spring Chinook that continues to survive despite a steady decline in salmon populations throughout the region.
Conserving the John Day River
Western Rivers Conservancy is acquiring land along the John Day to protect and improve fish and wildlife habitat, preserve cold-water tributaries, create public access and conserve rare sagebrush-steppe habitat. In 2013, Western Rivers Conservancy completed its first project on the lower John Day River by purchasing the 8,015-acre Murtha Ranch with its 8,000-acre BLM grazing lease and conveying the property to Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The result was Cottonwood Canyon State Park, Oregon’s largest state park in a generation. The effort forever conserved over 16 miles of the lower John Day, including three miles of Hay Creek, a key cold-water tributary.
Now we have the opportunity to conserve an additional 10 miles of the John Day River and nine miles of Thirtymile Creek, the largest, most important cold-water tributary to the lower river. In December 2014, Western Rivers Conservancy purchased the 14,148-acre Rattray Ranch which spans four miles of Thirtymile Creek and nearly two miles of the John Day and includes an additional 10,798-acre BLM grazing lease along eight miles of the John Day. Then, in 2017, we signed an agreement to purchase 2,939 acres of the Campbell Ranch, which spans an additional five miles of Thirtymile Creek, immediately upstream. We successfully transferred the first 4,083 acres of the ranch to the BLM in early 2018.
The Importance of Thirtymile Creek
Thirtymile Creek is the most important steelhead spawning and rearing tributary to the lower river and a critical source of cold water for the John Day. Unfortunately, the creek has been severely degraded. Acquiring the ranch will allow for restoration and conservation of four miles of the creek, improve steelhead habitat, and ensure the stream remains a permanent source of cold water for the John Day. The project will also conserve 10 miles of river frontage along the John Day River itself.
The Rattray Ranch lies at the heart of the John Day’s best habitat for California bighorn sheep, supporting an estimated 600 to 650 head, the largest herd in Oregon. Bighorn sheep are highly vulnerable to disease and can experience steep population declines as a result. Conserving high-quality habitat for these animals is key to their long-term vitality. The ranch is also home to Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and mountain lion, as well as raptors, upland game birds and numerous sensitive bird species.
Once we have conveyed the former Rattray Ranch to the BLM, we plan to implement sustainable grazing practices that we are currently piloting downstream at Cottonwood Canyon State Park. The goal is to use grazing as a management tool to enhance native habitat by reducing the amount of noxious weeds and increasing the quantity and quality of native grasses. We will fence cows out of fragile riparian habitat, streams and wetlands and ensure that grazing will be compatible with the area’s outstanding 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.
An Invaluable Public Resource
In addition to its wildlife values, the John Day possesses outstanding recreational values, especially for anglers, boaters, hikers and hunters. The Rattray Ranch property lies within the John Day Wild and Scenic River corridor and adjacent to both the North Pole Ridge and Thirtymile Wilderness Study Areas, where hunting is excellent. The ranch is one of the most important access points on the lower river and the only access along a 70-mile stretch of river between the Clarno Bridge upstream and Cottonwood Bridge downstream. By acquiring the property, WRC can place this precious land into public hands and ensure that people are able to access the river and its wilderness forever.
Funding for the John Day Project was made possible through generous contributions from multiple sources, including Lynn and Jack Loacker, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation granted through The Nature Conservancy, The Collins Foundation, The Carol and Velma Saling Foundation, The Conservation Alliance, The Burning Foundation, Giles W. and Elise G. Mead Foundation, The Cabana Fund of The Oregon Community Foundation, The Autzen Foundation, The Flyfisher Foundation, The Oregon Community Foundation, Evermine, Meyer Memorial Trust, the Jubitz Family Foundation, and with the generous support of many additional individuals, foundations and businesses.
This project was also made possible thanks to access funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helped WRC create new recreational access to over 78,000 acres of public land near Thirtymile Creek. LWCF is America's most important federal conservation and recreation program and has protected critical open space and improved outdoor recreation opportunities in nearly every state and every county in the U.S.
January 13, 2015
The Bend Bulletin
January 7, 2015
Oct 17, 2014
Snaking across eastern Oregon, the John Day River winds through a land of basalt canyons and sweeping river bends, where bighorn sheep outnumber cars and the scent of sagebrush fills the air. In spring and summer, boaters put in at sites like Service Creek, Twickenham and Clarno and spend multiple days floating the river, bass fishing and soaking up the spectacular scenery. Each fall, hunters and anglers return to the river just as surely as the wild steelhead do with the coming of higher water.
Jul 2, 2014
We are thrilled to announce a new conservation project on the John Day River. Western Rivers Conservancy recently embarked on a land acquisition that will revive the largest cold-water tributary to the lower river: Thirtymile Creek. Our effort at Thirtymile will improve some of the most important summer steelhead habitat in the John Day system and forever protect a public access point that is cherished by anglers, hunters and boaters from around the Pacific Northwest. Our acquisition of these lands will also improve habitat for spring Chinook and California bighorn sheep.