Oregon Conservation Summary

Oregon’s diversity of ecosystems range from lush coastal forests and alpine meadows to the salt desert scrub and playas of the high desert. The vegetation diversity results from the state’s extreme variation of geology, climate and topography. Colliding tectonic plates, volcanoes, glaciers and erosion mold and sculpt the Oregon landscape, while the state’s many mountain ranges alter its climate. Storms arrive from the ocean, dumping almost 200 inches of rain each year along the coast and releasing most of the rest along the peaks of the Cascades. By the time the clouds reach the east side of the Cascades, much of the high desert receives barely 10 inches of rain per year.

Oregon has some extraordinary natural features: the country’s deepest gorge, Hells Canyon; the deepest lake, Crater Lake; the largest geological fault in North America, Steens Mountain; and the richest find of prehistoric fossils, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The state has hundreds of miles of rugged coastline, towering coastal dunes, old-growth forests growing over 300 feet tall, and the Alvord Desert, a barren playa occupying almost 50 square miles.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

Oregon is a “crossroads” for plants from many regions, with numerous species at or near the edge of their range. Plants typically found in the Arctic dominate the high Cascades. Coastal Alaskan plants such as Sitka spruce dominate the northern coastal band, while coastalRedwood comes up from California in the fog belt in southern Oregon. The Wallowa Mountains are the western edge of the Rocky Mountains and are home to many species common to central Colorado. Southeastern Oregon is the edge of the Great Basin and is characterized by plants found in the cool deserts of Nevada and Utah. In the Klamath Mountains, the flora of the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades and the Great Basin come together to form unique combinations. A two-mile stretch of the Siskiyou Crest in southwestern Oregon supports plant communities as varied as old-growth Douglas-fir forest, alpine meadows, western juniper woodlands, Jeffrey pine savannas, red fir forests and dwarf sagebrush steppe.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Fortunately, most of the diversity in Oregon remains intact, with just more than half of the state in public ownership, and large areas of wilderness covering much of the high mountains. There have been a number of efforts to protect ecosystems on a very large scale in Oregon. The President’s Forest Plan of 1994 was developed to protect the northern spotted owl. The plan set aside almost all of the older forest on public lands and developed a set of late successional, old-growth reserves that at least temporarily stemmed the tide for many old-growth forest dependent species. A second major ecosystem protection effort targeted the Zumwalt Prairie, an almost 200,000-acre remnant prairie located in the northeastern corner of the state, adjacent to Hell’s Canyon. The Nature Conservancy has been able to acquire an almost 40,000 acre preserve at Zumwalt, and is working with local ranchers to assure the remainder of the prairie can be managed sustainably. This prairie contains one of the largest populations of the federally listed plant, Spaulding’s catchfly.

Steens Mountain Cattle Free Wilderness Area recently created in southeastern Oregon, is another conservation success story. Conservationists from the Oregon Natural Desert Association worked with local ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management to establish an almost one-million-acre wilderness, including the entire summit of Steens Mountain, and it exclude it from all livestock use, with all fences removed. Steens Mountain is home to an endemic Indian paintbrush. This effort has been expanded into the Sagebrush Cooperative, to address sagebrush management, invasions of western juniper into sagebrush, potential declines of the western sage grouse, and other issues.

The Stateof Oregon has recently become more involved in conservation. A ballot measure created the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, to provide millions of dollars of annual funding to watershed councils, local groups and agencies to protect and restore the state’s rivers, streams and fish. The measure also provided resources to Oregon’s Parks and Recreation Department, which has been using this funding to acquire new natural areas and protect important habitats on their lands.

The development of the Oregon Conservation Strategy, along with the previously developed Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds, has provided a focus for conservation in Oregon. Agencies, conservation organizations and the public are engaged with Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to help implement the strategy, the best blueprint for voluntary conservation action in the state.


As is the case elsewhere, invasive species, climate change and habitat loss remain the greatest threats to Oregon’s species and habitats. The state has particularly focused on trying to address the impacts and to slow the invasion of invasive species. It has also recognized the major implications of climate change. The governor and legislature have made climate change a state priority. However, addressing both of these problems remains a major challenge. Once the Forest Plan was adopted in 1994, habitat loss for old forest species was considerably reduced for a decade, until the 2004 passage of Measure 37, which significantly reduced the state’s ability to implement the statewide land-use planning goals established in 1973. Land-use planning remains an issue the state is grappling with. More information on the state land use program and new changes (Measure 49 and the Big Look) can be found online in the Land Use Explorer.

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