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40 years after last Wilderness protections, the Minam River is now fully in public ownership

Overhead view of the Minam Wildlife Area
Photo Credit: David Jensen

Today marks 40 years since the last Wilderness protections in Eastern Oregon. Four decades ago, Congress passed the Oregon Wilderness Act. This meant expanded Wilderness protections for the Eagle Cap and new Wilderness designations for the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness, the North Fork John Day Wilderness, the Monument Rock Wilderness, and the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. 

Those additional protections for the Eagle Cap meant the inclusion of the Minam - a decidedly special landscape. The Minam River is truly wild, in both a technical sense and a spiritual one. This river and the lands around it have long inspired connection to place, and loom large in the stories and seasonal movements of the Nez Perce, Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla people. The western ridge of the watershed once contained a series of rock and pole monuments placed by Old Chief Joseph (Tuekakas, a Nez Perce chief) in an attempt to safeguard their ancestral homelands – lands that were once promised to the Nimiipuu by the US government.

As we now all know well, those monuments were disregarded, and white settlers made their way into the Wallowa Valley, including the Minam. Logging followed in their wake. In those “early days”, loggers used horse teams and constructed splash dams in the Minam River. And as our country’s appetite for logs grew, and private timberland supplies waned, pressure on public forests like those in the Minam increased.

An excerpt from a High Country News article from 1972
A screencap from a 1972 High Country News article about the proposed Wilderness protections for the Minam

In the 1960s, the Forest Service proposed building over 50 miles of road and logging over 400 million board feet out of the Minam. This was unacceptable, and people sprung into action to stop it. Save the Minam, Inc., Maintain Eastern Oregon’s Wilderness, sportsmen’s organizations, private landowners and businesses, and many others got involved. Over 20 years of effort culminated in the Minam receiving Wilderness designation as part of the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Act.

View from the uplands of the newly expanded Minam Wildlife Area
View from the uplands of the newly expanded Minam Wildlife Area

Now, 40 years later, we celebrate a different but very important chapter in the Minam River’s story – the purchase and transfer of the remaining private lands between the Eagle Cap Wilderness and the public lands at Minam’s confluence with the Wallowa River. Last week, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation co-hosted an event with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the US Fish and Wildlife Service commemorating another 20+ years of efforts to purchase the 15,537-acre Minam River Ranch property, which was most recently owned by Manulife Insurance Company. Together, they rallied an impressive amount of financial support from private businesses like Bass Pro Shops/Cabelas, private foundations, and other nonprofit organizations like Oregon Hunters Association, the Oregon Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Oregon Wild Sheep Foundation, and more.

RMEF staff address the crowd at the celebration on Friday, June 21
RMEF staff address the crowd at the celebration on Friday, June 21

It’s worth mentioning that this project was able to get off the ground thanks to a $5,000,000 grant from the Wyss Foundation, which specifically funded this project because of its proximity to a Wilderness area. The Minam is such a productive hunting and fishing landscape because of the quality of habitat on public lands inside the Wilderness – and as lovers of the land, we must do all we can to ensure that these high-quality places are protected and connected to each other. 

A color codedmap of the Minam Wilderness Area

The Minam River Ranch Acquisition and expansion of the Minam Wildlife Area from 441 acres to 15,000+ acres is a win for conservation. It’s also a great example of how connectivity can be improved across different land jurisdictions, and how groups that may not always agree with each other can find common ground. Connecting landscapes benefits everybody.

The Minam is truly an exceptional place, but not the only remaining place in need of protection. This begs the question: after 40 years without new Wilderness protections in Oregon, what’s next? 

To learn more about the newly expanded Minam Wildlife Area, visit ODFW’s visitor guide.


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