July 23, 2020

Preserving History, Habitat and Recreational Access on the Lower John Day

Photography | Sage Brown

On the lower John Day River, Western Rivers Conservancy has purchased the McDonald’s Ferry Ranch in an effort to conserve thousands of acres of native grasslands and sagebrush-steppe, protect three miles of the John Day, improve recreational access, and set the stage for rejuvenating a tributary stream that once teemed with spawning steelhead.

The 4,100-acre McDonald’s Ferry Ranch, which lies at the downstream end of the John Day Wild and Scenic River corridor, is named for the old ferry that transported Oregon Trail migrants across the river at the site of the historic John Day River crossing. Even today, visitors can view wagon ruts carved into the desert floor by the countless wagons carrying people west to the Willamette Valley.

Now that we have purchased the ranch, we will work to convey it to the Bureau of Land Management for conservation within the wild and scenic river corridor. The joint effort will protect a vast swath of native sagebrush-steppe habitat in an area with bighorn sheep, pronghorn, mule deer and a variety of raptors and upland gamebirds that all face significant habitat loss across the West.

The ranch also features two-plus miles of Grass Valley Canyon Creek, which provides a unique opportunity to breathe new life into this once-productive steelhead tributary. The stream’s lower channel and mouth were completely relocated decades ago, adding to a host of issues that have limited steelhead spawning in the creek. Once we purchase the ranch, WRC, the BLM and our local partners will have the opportunity to restore the original channel, replant native vegetation and clear the way for steelhead to return to spawn once again.

The project will be a major boon for anglers and boaters by securing permanent access to the last viable boating take-out on the lower John Day. Below the ranch, the river winds into a 10-mile roadless reach and then careens over the un-runnable Tumwater Falls. The project will also provide public access to a calm, three-mile reach of the John Day with bank fishing and good hiking.

McDonald’s Ferry will be the third river access point on the Lower John Day that WRC will have delivered to the public since 2013. Once we complete the project, WRC, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and the BLM will have conserved a total of 31 miles of the mainstem within a 64-mile stretch of the John Day Wild and Scenic River. It will bring the number of acres conserved to nearly 43,000 (nearly 67 square miles), from the Rattray Ranch at Thirtymile Creek, to Cottonwood Canyon State Park and now downstream to McDonald’s Ferry.

Once the property is in public hands, it will complement other BLM lands both upstream and downstream of the ranch and directly across the river, where the Rock Creek recreation site provides foot access to the east side of the John Day.

With its trifecta of history, habitat and recreation, McDonald’s Ferry Ranch is a critically important spot on the lower John Day. Conservation of the ranch will have lasting benefits for fish, wildlife and everyone who sets foot on these lands, where a National Historic Trail intersects a Wild and Scenic River.

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