January marks the 25th anniversary of the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association. Today, ONDA has 4,000 supporters and is unique in the conservation community for its focus on the High Desert country and wildlife in Central and Eastern Oregon.
At first, it was a handful of people who answered a newspaper ad to form a "desert group."
Founding member Alice Elshoff recalls that in the early 1980s, the federal Bureau of Land Management had just inventoried its land for potential wilderness protection - and the group wasn't happy with the results.
"That was really what kicked it off," Elshoff says, "that they had missed a lot of places that we knew -- those few volunteers of us who spent time out in the desert -- knew about and loved and treasured. So, we started going out and doing our own inventories, and feeding that information back to the BLM."
Since then, ONDA has worked closely with federal agencies on some projects - and sued them on others. The group has won protections for Hart Mountain, Steens Mountain, the Oregon Badlands and the Owyhee River area.
Another founding member, Craig Miller, says they could not have imagined some of the current threats to a healthy desert ecosystem, including climate change and renewable energy that makes the desert a prime spot for wind and solar development. But he says they also could not have foreseen their successes.
"All in all, we're very optimistic about the future, because we've seen some very positive changes happen," Miller says. "Even though we see a lot of dangers, we also see a lot of opportunity and a lot of hope."
ONDA says its current goals are to protect the Owyhee Canyonlands on the Oregon-Idaho border, as well as pushing for new wilderness designations for the Horse Heaven and Cathedral Rock areas near John Day, and keeping wind turbines off Steens Mountain.
Miller says he was at a tense public meeting long ago when someone made a comment that stuck with him.
"He said, 'Well, you know, the environmental movement is just a fad. It's going to go away.' At that time, I made a vow to myself that environmentalism wasn't going to go away as long as I was alive," Miller says. "And I'm very thankful that it's not just a fad."
ONDA has identified almost 8 million acres of wilderness-quality land in Eastern Oregon. Elshoff's advice to people who don't see what's so special about it is to get off the main roads for a closer look.
"They need to see it in the morning when the sun comes up over it," Elshoff says. "They need to see it in the evening, when you have a desert sunset. They need to see it at night, when you have just this huge starlit sky or full-moon sky over the desert.
"I mean, that is truly magic."
Info: www.onda.org .
Chris Thomas of the Oregon News Service provided this story.