Many people see the desert as a dry and barren landscape, but Oregon's high desert is defined by water. Wetlands and riparian areas, essential habitat that occurs along the edges of rivers and streams, make up only 2% of the high desert, yet nearly all of the wildlife in the region depends on these oases to survive.
However, due to over a century of human uses such as inappropriate livestock grazing, trapping and development, most riparian areas in Oregon's high desert are degraded and unhealthy, lacking key elements such as vegetation and beaver that sustain natural cycles and support cool, clean, abundant water.
Climate change is further disrupting the balance of life in the desert for human and wildlife communities alike. With prolonged drought and large-scale fires becoming more frequent and intense, the conditions found across Oregon's high desert have become increasingly dire.
When watching the impacts of climate change unfold on an already unhealthy landscape, it can be easy to slip into a state of despair and hopelessness. You might wonder, what can an individual do to help reverse the overwhelming impacts of climate change on our natural world?
Participating in local watershed restoration projects is one powerful way for people to take clear, meaningful steps to lessen the impacts of climate change, while reducing the climate anxiety that many are feeling.
Oregon Natural Desert Association seeks to preserve the enduring waters that support thriving populations of fish, wildlife and people – and community volunteers hold the key to our success. Each year hundreds of ONDA volunteers experience the joy and satisfaction of taking an active role in reducing the impacts of climate change in Oregon's high desert.
ONDA's watershed restoration approach is guided by the best available science. Countless studies have shown that the actions ONDA employs, such as planting trees along stream banks and building instream structures that mimic beaver dams, reduce the impacts of climate change by decreasing water temperatures, increasing stream flows, and enabling beavers to resume their role in maintaining healthy riparian ecosystems. Research has shown that beaver-managed wetlands provide a climate refuge for fish and wildlife and store up to 35 times more carbon dioxide than unhealthy streams. By restoring desert waters, volunteers reduce both the impacts of climate change and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
When contemplating how can we be a positive force for restoration and chart the best course to reverse ill-advised human actions of the past, ONDA also relies on knowledge imparted by Oregon's Native American tribes.
Indigenous people have existed in reciprocal relationship with the natural world since time immemorial. Many Native American tribes are leading efforts to restore habitat, combat climate change and educate people about ways we can have a healthier relationship with our surroundings. ONDA contributes to these efforts by coordinating our volunteer workforce to support restoration of tribal-owned lands in Oregon's high desert. ONDA has partnered with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs on restoration projects on their Pine Creek Conservation Area in the John Day River Basin for two decades. ONDA volunteers have planted tens of thousands of trees and completed other critical actions that are transforming the watershed back into a thriving ecosystem.
Longtime ONDA volunteer Julie Weikel said, "I love volunteering with ONDA on projects that collaborate with eastern Oregon tribes. The support and respect exhibited by this kind of work is a 'two for one.' We get the wonderful satisfaction of working outdoors, and we are supporting the Native American land ethic. I feel honored to participate in tribal-directed projects supported by ONDA's 'get it done' workforce."
Working alongside other people to care for the desert provides a sense of agency and hope for the future. Should you find yourself slipping into climate despair, consider getting involved in ONDA's restoration projects. Your efforts will create thriving wetlands and riparian areas that restore the balance of life in Oregon's high desert. And, you'll experience firsthand how humans can be a positive part of the living, breathing natural world.
Opportunities to participate in ONDA's spring restoration trips are open now, and registration for fall trips and projects will open on June 1. To learn more and sign up, visit onda.org/trips.
—Gena Goodman-Campbell is the Stewardship Director at Oregon Natural Desert Association), a nonprofit organization that protects and restores Oregon's high desert public lands and waters. Gena engages ONDA's community in hands-on restoration projects that improve desert habitat in key watersheds and migration corridors.