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Keeping Public Lands in Public Hands: An Interview with ONDA’s Gena Goodman-Campbell

— By: The Team at Nau

As the Central Oregon Wilderness Coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), Gena Goodman-Campbell has been part of winning wilderness protection for over 39,000 acres of Oregon’s high desert. With public lands across the country coming under increasing threat, we sat down with her to learn more about the effort to protect our wild places.

Nau: For those unfamiliar with your organization, what is ONDA?
Gena: We are a conservation nonprofit based in Bend, Oregon. We’re celebrating our 30th birthday this year, and we work to protect and restore Oregon’s high desert.

Nau: What has ONDA accomplished?
Gena: Some of our biggest accomplishments are protecting the three desert wilderness areas that exist in Oregon. The first was Steens Mountain, which was designated in 2000, and the Oregon Badlands and Spring Basin, which were both designated in 2009.

Owyhee Canyonlands: Photo by Jeremy Fox

Nau: What does it take to get that kind of protection for a wilderness area?
Gena: Years and years and years of work! We start by meeting with the landowners who live around the proposed wilderness area. We talk with them about what wilderness means, about the fact that it won’t impact their property rights, and try to build support among the locals first. After that, we work to build grassroots support in the communities closest to the proposed wilderness area. For the Oregon Badlands, that was Bend, which was a relatively easy lift. People here understand that places like the Badlands are key to the quality of life we enjoy here and are a big part of our economy.

Nau: Why is ONDA’s work important today?
Gena: Our work has taken on a new importance with the Republican controlled congress and presidential administration. That’s not to say Republicans aren’t conservationists—some of our great conservation leaders have been republican in the past—but that hasn’t been the case in the last couple of decades. The Republican party actually has the transfer of federal public lands to the states as part of their platform. ONDA is the only group that focuses exclusively on Oregon’s high desert, so we see our role as defending the incredible public lands in Oregon’s high desert, and bringing more people into the base of supporters who speak up to defend it.

Steens: Photo by Brent Fenty

Nau: Why is the transfer of lands to the states a bad idea?
Gena: The biggest reason is that the states simply can’t afford to manage millions of acres of land. The proponents of these proposals tend to make them sound pretty harmless, but the main concern is that because states can’t afford to manage millions of acres of new land, they will be forced to raise taxes and ultimately sell off land to the highest bidder. Firefighting costs alone—I’ve seen estimates that put the cost of firefighting on federal lands in Oregon at $75 million a year.

Nau: What is ONDA working on now?
Gena: One fantastic area that we are working to get permanent protection for is the Owyhee Canyonlands. The Owyhee is 2.5 million acres in southeast Oregon, the largest unprotected wilderness area in the lower 48 states.

Nau: What can people do to stand up for Public Lands?
Gena: Writing and calling our senators and congressmen is obviously one of the main things, and more and more of us have our senators on speed dial these days. Beyond that, we need to understand what the major threats are right now, attend town hall meetings, engage with the agencies that manage our land, and volunteer on public lands.

We see the threats to public lands as scary, but it’s an opportunity to broaden and diversify the conservation movement. Almost everyone can agree that public lands should stay in public hands. We may disagree on how they’re managed, but there’s a lot of common ground and potential to work with people we haven’t worked with in the past.

Photo by Michelle Alvarado

For the month of April, as part of our Partners for Change program, 2% of all Nau sales will be donated to Conservation Alliance and ONDA to support their work defending public lands. Learn more about ONDA’s work, and how to get involved, at onda.org.