▶️ Welcome to the High Desert highway that is one-of-a-kind in Oregon

The Oregon Department Of Transportation owns and maintains about 8,000 miles of state highways

One small section of that 8,000 miles is unique. And it’s located in the High Desert.

Oregon Highway 27 starts as Main Street in Prineville.

On its entire 44.78-mile southbound route, there is only one sign telling you that you’re driving OR 27.

And that drive is spectacular — along the Crooked River through some of the wildest basalt cliffs in basalt cliff country. Up over the Bowman Dam that’s holding back the slim puddle that is the Prineville Reservoir these days.

 

Down to the south, through open range and the land of cows you’ll find an occasional mailbox and a dirt side road or two.

But this is where the story really starts.

And where the pavement ends.

RELATED: OSP shares adorable video of deer family properly using the crosswalk

“We are out here on Highway 27, which is the only gravel state-maintained through highway in the entire state,” said Kacey Davey of the Department of Transportation.

“I did the math and it’s 0.002% of the roads we maintain are gravel.”

 

Highway data shows OR 27 averages 17 vehicles per day.

How quiet is this road? Just ask Pam and J.W. Hart. They’re at the Sage Hollow Ranch — the only property that has a driveway off the gravel section of OR 27.

They bought the place 35 years ago.

“You’d go weeks without seeing a vehicle up and down the road. You might see a neighbors truck go by that you know but as far as anybody from the outside world. You just didn’t see that much,” J.W. said.

 

So what’s rush hour like there?

“I guess is when you got a bunch of cows that’s been stampeded by a mountain lion,” J.W. said.

RELATED: OSP catches driver doing 119 in a 55 and the fine is … WHOA!

They say you can probably go a half-day without ever seeing a car.

“And then there’s other days, holidays and stuff when the weather’s nice and you might have fifty cars in one day,” J.W. said.

 

In the three hours and 20 minutes we spent shooting this story, we saw three cars go by.

One of those was being driven by road warriors Steve and Lisa from Seattle. We met them where U.S. Highway 20 and OR 27 meet. They were considering what looked like a shortcut on the map.

“We found this road and it looked like something interesting. We have a vehicle that can handle it so we though, let’s give it a crack,” Steve said. 

But they didn’t know about the gravel thing.

After considering their options, Lisa makes the call.

“I was going to say no. I’ve been driving in the crosswinds all this way and I don’t think I want to do 25 miles of gravel,” Lisa said.

RELATED: ‘I got this’: Remembering the famed ‘Prineville Wheelie’ 40 years later

It’s a little shorter than that. ODOT says it’s 18.5 miles. Our odometer says 17. And it’s really good gravel.

Wikipedia says it’s also known as the “Les Schwab Highway.” It’s not. That’s Millican Road a few miles west.

A technicality here. There is one short stretch of pavement over a little bridge. 

You’ll pass under a Bonneville power high voltage line that’s electricity to Burns. And you’ll hit five cattle guards.

 

At the south end, you’ll see just one sign heading north that tells you what road you’re on.

And it turns out this stretched out gravel patch is useful.

“We use it to train our new employees on how to use our graders,” said Davey.”

Once or twice a year, it’s the grader driving school for ODOT rookies.

“We also use graders for things like blade-patching which is a type of pavement repair that we do. We use graders on the gravel shoulders and also to move snow in the wintertime. So our crews spend a lot more time on graders than just maintaining this one highway,” said Davey.

The road is nicely graded in places and looks like it will stay that way for awhile. ODOT says it has no current plans to pave this stretch of OR 27.

Highway 27 pavement ends

▶️ Bend Safeway shooting suspect was martial arts student who didn’t stand out

He was young, angry and heavily armed. The man who police say killed a worker and customer at Safeway on Bend’s eastside Sunday was just 20 years old.

Even while he was a Mountain View High School student, the man identified by police as the shooter was studying martial arts.

He trained for a time at Danzig MMA in northeast Bend. The owner said the suspect wasn’t a very good student and adds there was nothing about the young man that really stood out.

“Like a lot of young kids, they say they want to be fighters and when they learn what training is about they do something else,” said Mac Danzig. “I think it was two-and-a-half years ago he went and followed some girl to a different gym.”

RELATED: ‘Heroic’: Bend Safeway worker among 2 dead in shooting, tried disarming suspect

RELATED: Fundraiser launched for family of Bend Safeway shooting victim

At Ralph Gracie Jiu-Jitsu across town, there was a similar story. They haven’t seen the man in class for several months and didn’t make much of an impression while he was there.

Terri Aube lives near the Safeway, shops there and does jazzercise next door to Danzig MMA.

“Some of my jazzercise friends and I were talking. No place is safe these days. Uvalde happened in a small town in Texas. Small towns are just as susceptible as the big city. But I still didn’t expect it here.

The man’s former teacher echoes what so many of us are thinking about the scene that unfolded so violently Sunday night.

“It’s terrible. It’s horrendous. I empathize with somebody who feels the world is terrible and bad. But I think it’s cowardly to go in and shoot people. It’s horrible. It’s stupid,” said Danzig.

RELATED: Bend Safeway employee: Workers hid in refrigerator during shooting

RELATED: Bend Safeway shooting witness heard dozens of shots, saw people running out

▶️ ‘Horse Whisperer’ teaches art of gentling wild mustangs in Central Oregon

It’s estimated there are more than 3,500 wild horses on the Warm Springs Reservation. Every year, as many foals as possible are captured and put up for adoption.

But adoption isn’t easy. These are mustangs — wild horses — and introducing them to human beings is a difficult and challenging process.

We spent a day at a clinic learning about “gentling” the wildness out of these mustang babies.

RELATED LINKS:

RELATED: World-renowned horse gentler brings methods to Redmond ranch

RELATED: Volunteers learn how to gentle wild mustangs; prepare them for adoption

▶️ Inside archeological dig at Oregon caves where people lived 13,000 years ago

About 60 miles south of Bend, University of Oregon archeology students are digging into a series of caves. It’s dirty, challenging work.

The man in charge has been at it for decades, piecing together the lives of the people who lived here as long as 13,000 years ago.

But this is Dr. Dennis Jenkins’ last full-time summer session at the dig site. He’s retiring.

We caught up with him and his students recently at the Connelly Caves on the fringe of the Silver Lake Basin.

Here, the students from Oregon and the University of Nevada-Reno dig into — and carefully chart and chronicle — bits of the past.

“You are not here to dig and learn to to dig. You are here to become an archaeologist,” says Jenkins. “There’s a huge difference between finding artifacts and becoming an archaeologist. You have to put that context together, it’s absolutely vital to what we do.

He looks back in time for us to a very different natural setting — an earlier age when these caves were a place of shelter.

“What we’re looking at right now is not what was here,” said Jenkins. “All the way across the valley would have been you know open and some vegetated water where the bullrushes and the cattails are coming up through the shallower water and those are all edible.”

“We’ve found villages that were clearly placed to be right in the middle of that fresh food that nature was providing.”

The diggers find proof of the ancient diets every day as students carefully scrape away soil on the one square meter they’re assigned for the six week session.

“Then we’ve got groundstone that you’ve been seeing here. With mammoth or mastodon blood on it. We can actually extract the proteins right off of the stone tool. Right out of the pores of that stone.”

Everything. Every artifact. Every handful of soil. Every out-of-place stone is recorded, mapped and described in detail.

RELATED: Oregon lithium project can look to Nevada for preview of possible challenges

RELATED: Lithium exploration in Oregon may bring mining boom, environmental fight

One thing that we unearthed is the good doctor’s nickname. We’re told some scholars call him “Dr. Poop.” 

Jenkins laughs at the name.

“That’s because of the coprolites. And finding human DNA in coprolites that were over 14,000 years old,” says Jenkins.

Coprolites are fossilized feces.

For Jenkins, everything found here might tell a story.

“Smoke is going up and staining the surfaces. Is it possible DNA is preserved in that smoke? In that rat urine up there? Yes, it is possible! Do we know that? No. Has anybody looked? No. So we’ve gotta preserve this stuff for the future. Every site needs to be preserved.”

With retirement looming, Jenkins concedes this type of research has its limits.

“You are never going to find the first person who walked onto this continent.”

But he also believes digging up the past should continue well into the future when new theories and technologies might pull new history out of this age-old dirt.

“I am never going to completely dig a site. It will always have something left behind for the next generation.”

Jenkins tells us the dig at the Connley Caves will likely wrap up next summer or the following year.

 

▶️ International gangs, trafficked labor behind many local illegal pot grows

Recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon, of course. But the illegal pot business hasn’t gone away.

In fact, it’s a growth industry.

And we’re not talking about your neighbor growing a few dozen plants in his barn for personal consumption. We’re talking about international criminal gangs using trafficked labor in major marijuana growing operations.

And they’re keeping local drug teams busy.

Deschutes County Detective Dustin Miller walked us through what’s left of a major illegal grow that was busted on July 6, 2022.

“These are designed to go up, be one season and be done,” said Miller. “This is a large operation.”

Just east of the Bend Airport, in a neighborhood of small farms and private homes and hiding in plain sight, they found 25 flimsy greenhouses.

“Counting this large one back here, the large one we found here just had starters and growing materials different things probably for the original stages before they planted the real greenhouses,” said Miller.

Bend pot bust greenhouses

The same bust involved another property. Together, more than 6,000 plants were confiscated. Estimated street value: $3.5 million.

RELATED: 2 Bend locations raided in marijuana bust; $3.5M in street value pot seized

“What we have become is the criminal breeding ground for this criminal activity as it’s spread across the states,” said Miller.

And this is just the most recent. 

The biggest bust in county history came in September 2021 in Alfalfa. Nine thousand plants and more than a ton of processed pot. Detectives say it was run by a Mexican cartel. The workers were brought into the country illegally, working off debt and living in terrible conditions.

RELATED: Arrests in Mexican drug cartel bust could take months, detectives say

Alfalfa pot bust 2021

This past April, 2,800 plants were seized. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and more than a dozen firearms.

On June 14, Jefferson County busted a record haul of 17,000 plants and eight tons of processed pot. Another foreign-run operation, this one tied to a cartel in China. Mostly Chinese workers living in the same conditions as the other grows.

RELATED: Jefferson County drug bust: 5 arrests, 8 tons of marijuana, links to China

“Very little money. Very little food. Very little water. Very little shelter. Essentially no bathrooms,” said Miller. “The filth that they are being forced to live in is not anyplace any of us like to spend an evening much less send a full growing season.”

Jefferson County pot bust

Grow sites like this are dangerous fire hazards.

“A lot of them are run off extension cords, overloading breakers and circuits, said Miller.

And there are health hazards. The products are completely unregulated.

“We’re seeing hard fertilizers. We’re seeing pesticides and we’re seeing chemicals being placed on these plants and around these greenhouses to deter the rodents that are not intended for human consumption,” said Miller.

It’s happening because there’s money to be made — big money — in illegal marijuana.

“California, Washington,  Oregon is known for having some of the best marijuana in the United States,” said Miller.

It’s a classic case of buy low, sell high.

“You can buy bulk — $900 dollars a pound, $1,000 a pound, $1,200 a pound — and you can take it back to the other side of the country and you can triple that,” said Miller.

Or just grow your own and ship it out of state by truck, by the U.S. mail or package delivery services, detectives say.

The state’s hemp industry — often providing camouflage for illegal grows.

“It’s become fairly socially accepted to see large hemp farms being grown,” said Miller. It’s harder for law enforcement to discover them. It’s harder for us to see them, identify them and process them when they are in fact an illegal grow when there are so many of them.”

Marijuana

This metaphorical swamp was supposed to dry up with legalization.

Here’s one of the stated purposes of Ballot Measure 91.

 “Prevent revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels.”

Statements in support:

“Measure 91 fights back against drug cartels so that they face competition with the regulated market and go out of business.” — Volunteer firefighter and EMT

“We can cut off the unlawful drug trafficking with a smart approach at home.” — Former Supreme Court Justice

“Cut off the black market and send the cartels packing.” — Vote Yes on 91 campaign

“Get rid of violent drug cartel grow operations.” — Council for Retired Citizens

Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson calls that reasoning a farce.

“What we’re seeing is an increase in the cartel operations,” said Nelson.

“The argument that it would get rid of the black market industry, that argument hasn’t held up,” he continued. “We’re not seeing that. As a matter of fact, I believe we’re seeing an increase in the black market industry because marijuana from Oregon has probably by now been found in all 50 states and maybe other countries.”

Nelson is adding personnel to the county’s Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Team, hoping to avoid what’s happened in Douglas, Josephine and Jackson counties. Leaders there have declared states of emergency with law enforcement overwhelmed.

It’s led to legislative approval of $25 million in anti-drug funding and prompted a moratorium on licenses for hemp farms.

“They’ve made a dent by having the state of emergency and putting the licenses on a moratorium,” said Miller. “We’re seeing those particular type of grows start to squirt out to the community and they’re squirting out to Klamath County, Lake County, Deschutes County.”

That means more work for local drug teams who could use more resources.

“We probably have 25-30 active cases right now that we’re working on,” said Miller.

So do the math. How many more plants; how many more guns; how many more trafficked workers are out there right now, right here at home?

In most cases, it is tips from suspicious neighbors which lead to investigations and eventual busts. Central Oregon Daily News spoke with neighbors at several Bend-area grow sites and they were willing to talk to us, but not on camera. They admit they’re scared off by that word “cartels” and the serious criminal element involved.

▶️ Innovate or die: How retiring Crux leader pushed breweries to be better

You might never have heard the name Larry Sidor. The man who has been brewing professionally for nearly a half-century has put his stamp on so much of the local and regional beer scene. 

How he’s stepping away from the business and looking back on a career that stretches from Olympia Brewing in Washington state to Crux Fermentation in Bend.

As we sat down with Larry to reminisce about his career, he poured us a pint of malt-forward IPA — special batch of beer celebrating a decade at Crux Fermentation Project.

“Since I’m retiring or stepping back from the day-to-day, it might be the last beer I brew. I don’t know. We’re going to find out,” said Larry.

After half a century in the business, he still loves making, drinking and talking beer.

“It’s an IPA but it uses four different kinds of hop compounds in it,” said Larry.

His life in beer-world started in the 1970s at venerable Olympia Brewing in Tumwater, Wash.

“They were probably the most solid technical brewers in the world at the time,” said Larry. “The beer they were making back in the 70s would be a craft beer today. It was whole hops. It was rice. It was all sorts of great malts. It was fantastic.”

Larry Sidor

But that life changed when the industry changed.

“Miller Lite really ruined the beer industry. They kind of changed it from brewers making a good beer to marketing people selling water,” said Larry.

Miller wasn’t the only company going lite.

“One of the lowest moments in my life was in an Olympia board meeting and the marketing guy said ‘Larry we want you to make beer as close to water as possible so we can sell more,'” said Larry.

“Miller Lite really ruined the beer industry.” — Larry Sidor

Still, for Larry and others, it was also an opportunity.

“That allowed the craft brewer to come in and say, ‘Hey, here is a great beer. Here is something that doesn’t taste like Miller Lite,” said Larry.

One of the people who helped him along the way was Bert Grant, a Northwest craft brewing legend.

“His brew pub in Yakima, Yakima Malting and Brewing, was the first ever brewpub in the United States. He paved the way,” said Larry.

Larry Sidor

After six years in the hop industry, Larry was hired as brewmaster at Deschutes Brewery in Bend — a city just beginning to earn it’s “Beer City U.S.A.” reputation. It’s where he lived by his mantra:

Innovate or die.

“I’ll never forget when we came out with Inversion, our IPA. I kinda had to check my car for car bombs every night because the brewers weren’t too sure,” said Larry.

Then, he tapped all his experience and opened Crux Fermentation Project 10 years ago.

“Being CEO was never my desire, aim, nothing I really wanted to do. I’m good at administration but it’s not something I enjoy,” said Larry.

What he’s trying to say is, “I like making beer.”

Jon Abernathy wrote the book on Bend beer, quite literally. The author of “Bend Beer: A History of Brewing in Central Oregon” says there’s no doubt Larry leaves the region and the craft brewing industry better off than he found it.

“Innovate or die. There’s many breweries that have failed along the way because they were not innovative enough or too staid enough or just didn’t stand out enough,” said John. “He’s been open to pushing brewers to get better, pushing breweries to get better, developing these new techniques, helping develop these new hop strains and hop varieties when he was in the industry there.

Larry appreciates the attaboy.

“The best thing that people come back to me and go ‘Larry, thanks.’ I really appreciate it, I didn’t appreciate it then ’cause you were kind of rough on me but boy do I appreciate it now,” said Larry.

“He’s been open to pushing brewers to get better, breweries to get better, developing these new techniques.” — Jon Abernathy

He sees changing and challenging times ahead for beer makers and beer drinkers.

“I think you’re going to see a huge reduction in packaged beer on the shelf. I think you’re going to see the brewpubs survive quite nicely. But I think a shakeout is coming,” said Larry.

What he sees for himself is a lot less work and a lot more fishing and sailing.

“Kind of get out of the rat race, take the time to enjoy life. That’s what I’m really looking forward for,” said Larry.

And looking back? Many memories, millions of gallons brewed and few regrets.

“I thought, in beer, I was going to join the most boring, staid business in the world and it’s been anything but that. It’s been a journey that’s just been fantastic,” said Larry.

Check out this Taste This feature on Crux we did a few years back

▶️ ‘You stay calm’: Pilot’s split-second decision to land on Powell Butte Hwy

It was one of the most unusual takeoffs — and landings — that anyone who flies in and out of Bend Municipal Airport will ever experience.

Pilot Michael Lemaire took off in his tiny light sport aircraft only to land moments later, a few hundred yards away on the Powell Butte Highway.

“Everything was fine, everything was totally normal,” Lemaire said as he was checking the conditions ahead of his Sunday morning flight. “There was very few traffic.. Fourth of July weekend so everybody’s gone somewhere else.”

But just a few seconds and a few hundred feet into the air, suddenly everything was not fine.

“So I lost power and the engine died,” Lemaire said. “Completely.”

He didn’t have enough altitude to turn back to the runway, so he did what pilots do in emergencies.

“When you are so close to the ground, you don’t want to stall. So nose down, landing speed and just look for a spot to land. That’s all you can do.”

RELATED: Small plane forced to land near Powell Butte Hwy due to faulty engine

Lemaire said there wasn’t time to get excited.

“You stay calm because you have a few seconds.”

The rugged Bureau of Land Management land below him didn’t look good.

“You don’t want to do that because there are big rocks and stumps and you’re probably flip around so and there were practically no cars on the highway,” said Lemaire. “It was an obvious choice, you know.

It’s a nice, flat, two-lane surface — but it’s not a runway.

“Normally, runways are straight and highways have a turns once in a while, so I had to do a turn just on the landing.”

So he turned and touched down with no damage to the plane. He got out and pushed it off the road.

RELATED: Road work by the numbers: Summer projects take massive manpower

Was it skill or luck?

“Oh, luck. Absolutely. The skill was normal, no exceptional skill. Normal skill for a pilot. Luck that the highway was free.”

There’s that old saying that the definition of a good landing is one you can walk away from.

Plane lands Powell Butte Highway, July 3, 2022
Michael Lemaire’s light sport aircraft landed on Powell Butte Highway after the engine cut out shortly after takeoff from Bend Municipal Airport, July 3, 2022.

The definition of a perfect landing?

“It’s a landing where the plane is still useable after so this was a perfect landing,” said Lemaire.

Lemaire still doesn’t know what went wrong, but he says that when he towed the plane back to the hangar, he put the key in the engine. Of course, it fired right up.

He also said somebody out there who was driving on Powell Butte Highway and who stopped to help shot video of the landing. Lemaire said he’d like to see it.

So would we. If that’s you, contact us at info@centraloregondaily.com.

Watch our story below from last summer where we look at the massive manpower and more required for projects on the Powell Butte Highway and other roads in Central Oregon.

▶️ Oregon lithium project can look to Nevada for preview of possible challenges

MCDERMITT CALDERA, Ore. — In Oregon’s remote McDermitt Caldera, an Australian company drills for lithium. And so far, they like what their core samples show.

“It’s encouraging. Definitely encouraging,” said Lindsay Dudfield, executive director for Australia’s Jindalee Resources.

Dudfield says the test drilling is just a start. Actual lithium mining, if it happens, could be a decade away.

“There is a lot more data collection to be done. There’s the permitting process to go through. Permitting any mine will take a period of time even with strong government support,” said Dudfield.

And they are not the only ones on the hunt for lithium here. 

The highest-profile one and the most advanced project is the Thacker Pass Project, owned by Lithium Americas. It’s located at the southern end of the caldera. At the northern end of the caldera is where Jindalee’s got its lithium prospect.

What’s happening to the south in Nevada’s Thacker Pass is an example of what Jindalee could face. A small but fiercely dedicated group of anti-mining, anti-electrification protestors.

“And then you get these charlatans, these liars, these magicians like Elon Musk who come along and try to convince us all that this is green? That this is green to continue destroying the planet in this way?” said Max Wilbert, part of the group Protect Thacker Pass.

It’s just part of a continuing multi-front battle over lithium extraction.

Open opposition. Roadside protests. Legal challenges.

“There’s been some issues that have arisen at Thacker Pass and we’re trying to make sure we don’t repeat maybe some of the — I don’t want to say mistakes — but we’re more open right from the start,” said Jindalee’s Dudfield

SEE PART 1: Lithium exploration in Oregon may bring mining boom, environmental fight

RELATED: Tribes lose bid to block digging at lithium mine in Nevada

Lithium Nevada — a subsidiary of Lithium Americas — touts the high-paying jobs and energy independence the mine offers.

Protestors say they’ll fight to the bitter end.

“Taking a mountain top off for coal is bad. Well, taking a mountain apart for lithium is bad as well,” protester Will Falk said in 2021.

“They’re protesting the expansion of electric vehicles and lithium batteries for home energy storage. Those are two things that will profoundly bring down the country’s carbon footprint,” said Tim Cowley of Lithium Nevada in response.

Wilbert is unconvinced by the magnanimous words.

“These people are not environmentalists,” said Wilbert. “They’re not in favor of life. They’re not protectors of the land. They’re not concerned about global warming. These people are in it for money.”

Anti-mine activists and some local ranchers say federal agencies under the Trump administration rushed the process without appropriate input from local communities or proper environmental review.

Just a few yards from Orovada, Nevada’s only gas station sits a new electric charging station. It’s a place to power-up lithium-ion batteries in electric cars.

It’s also just a few miles from the proposed lithium mine.

We met a group of mine protesters there — an irony not lost on them.

“I understand that. But at what cost? Are we willing to sacrifice communities that grow food for the nation? To put power into our phones and our cars?” asked Gina Amato, a spokesperson for  the local group Thacker Pass Concerned Citizens.

The state agency which issued permits for the mine this winter claims they did so only after extensive review and months of public engagement.

Rancher Edward Bartell says it’s not enough. He’s leading the legal battles against the mine and is worried about plans to use sulphuric acid in lithium processing.

“They’re going to haul it out to our community to create sulphuric acid to the tune of, in phase two, roughly 5,800 tons of sulphuric acid they’re going to create every single day,” said Bartell. “And then they’re going to dump that residue on public lands on priority sage grouse habitat.”

“We feel that it’s bizarre that this type of thing would even be thought about approval and they’re spinning it as eco-friendly,” Bartell added  “I don’t think we can pollute our way to a better planet.”

Members of the Paiute Shoshone tribe consider the pass sacred. It’s the site of a massacre in 1865.

“My old people. they call it ‘Puheemuhuh.’ You translate that into english, it’s ‘Rotten Moon'” said Myron Smart, a Paiute Shoshone

Smart works at the 96 Ranch in the next valley over. He would rather the land, the sage grouse and the spirits remain undisturbed.

“I would hate to see for all of that to be taken away, in that perspective. Because I know whatever that it is that’s out there that they’re after, it’s not very good. It’s not good for the air quality. It’s not good for the water,” said Smart.

Ranch owner Kris Stewart has heard the job creation promises. Full-time, high-dollar work for hundreds of people at the mine and processing plant for decades to come.

But she wants to hear more about long-term impacts on local infrastructure and agriculture.

“I get what the positive economic impacts are,” said Stewart. “I just think we gotta ask questions and get them answered, with no BS.”

Northwest environmental groups are paying close attention to what happens in the McDermitt Caldera.

“It’s wild, stunning, magical, beautiful country,” said Ryan Houston with the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Assoociation.

The expanding lithium rush in this landscape raises a host of issues.

“If you’re talking about large-scale industrial development in the high desert, whether it’s in Nevada or Oregon or any other place, and you’re talking about significant road systems and significant change to vegetation and land cover, you can’t help but have a significant impact on the species who rely on that habitat,” said Houston. 

Dudfield and Jindalee say they get the message.

“It’s critical that we explain what we’re doing, for a start, to stakeholders,” he said.

Public relations should be a priority if they ever want to get lithium out of here. A major mine in this remote corner of Oregon likely won’t be an easy sell.

“I don’t know if we’re ready for it, but it is what it is. All we can do is be open and honest with everyone and hope that common sense prevails,” said Dudfield. 

▶️ Lithium exploration in Oregon may bring mining boom, environmental fight

It could be a new kind of “gold rush” in the West with the motherlode found in Oregon. A precious metal deposit that could be worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Exploratory drilling has been going on in the far southeast corner of the state on the Oregon-Nevada border for the last three years. What drillers are looking for in the McDermitt Caldera is not actually gold.

It’s lithium.

McDermitt, Nevada, is just a few hundred yards over the Oregon border. Population: 95. A shrinking dot on the high desert map. For the last century, a boom and bust mining town straddling two-lane U.S. Highway 95.

One casino, two gas stations, long dead businesses and home to the North American headquarters of Jindalee Resources of Perth, Australia.

“Ha! There’s a lot more drilling to be done,” said Lindsay Dudfield, Executive Director for Jindalee. “We’ll be drilling here for a lot more years.”

Lithium is what drew the mineral exploration company to McDermitt. Why are they looking for it? Look around your home for the answer and you’ll probably find it.

What is lithium?

Lithium is a key component in cellphones, laptops and solar and wind power storage systems. All kinds of electronics, including lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars.

Even with demand surging, the country has just one small lithium mine operating in Southern Nevada. The biggest deposits of the world’s lightest metal are in Chila, Argentina, Australia and China.

Watch Part 2: Oregon lithium project can look to Nevada for preview of possible challenges

RELATED: Oregon mining boom could be a bust for sage grouse

Most lithium mined globally is shipped to China, where it is refined and sold back to the rest of the world.

All of which brings us to southeastern Oregon’s spectacular emptiness.

In a late Spring snow squall, we drive into the 16-million-year-old McDermitt Caldera, looking for evidence of the 29 drill holes already sunk by Jindalee.

“This is a pioneering part of the exploration cycle,” said Dudfield.

It’s the first lithium drilling operation of this scale ever permitted in the State of Oregon. It doesn’t look like much — just a metal cap in the mud. But it’s a hint of what could be the biggest, most accessible deposit in North America. Dudfield has called it “a monster.”

“Well, look. We wouldn’t be coming back and doing more work if we didn’t like what we’re seeing,” said Dudfied.

They’ll sink a total of 61 drill holes on more than 7,000 acres — about half the area of their staked mining claim.

RELATED: Tribes lose bid to block digging at lithium mine in Nevada

Dudfield stresses Jindalee is always trying to disturb the land as little as possible, to replant and repair around drilling sites.

“We’re currently undertaking flora and fauna surveys, hydrological surveys, cultural surveys just to make sure we minimize our impact on areas that might be sensitive,” said Dudfied.

Another thing he stresses, repeatedly, is that Jindalee is looking — not digging.

“This is exploration. There is no guarantee a mining operation will result,” said Dudfield.

But there’s also no guarantee it won’t.

“Obviously, if our exploration is successful and all other stars align, the lithium price remains high, we have support from the community and government support for developing a mine here then, yes, that’s the ultimate goal,” said Dudfield.

Environmental concerns with lithium mining

Ryan Houston with the Bend-based conservation group Oregon Natural Desert Association says they’ll keep Jindalee’s work under a microscope for years.

“Given that this has the potential to be North America’s largest lithium mine, we’re going to be watching it very closely and most importantly we’re going to be focused on making sure there is clear and explicit compliance with those bedrock conservation laws,” said Houston.

He’s hoping a balance can be found between lithium demand and damage to the land.

“How do we develop these critical minerals and do it in a way that protects some of the key things we care about, biodiversity and wild landscapes,” said Houston.

Environmental groups aren’t the only ones keeping a wary eye on the drilling.

Ranchers keeping a close eye

The Black Angus cattle grazing on federal land near the drilling sites belong to G.J. Livestock — Fred and Judy Wilkinson’s operation. 

“There once was 17 family ranches in this valley on the Oregon side. There’s only two of us left,” said Fred.

Despite Jindalee’s assurances, the Wilkinsons are skeptical about promises made.

“When those drill rigs and stuff come in here, those guys don’t care how much grass they destroy or what happens,” said Fred. “They try to plant it back, and they’re supposed to. But the (Bureau of Land Management) has a tough time keeping after them.”

Judy doubts her great-grandson Westyn’s generation will ever work this country, especially if this becomes the lithium mining capital of the continent.

“Some things come to an end,” said Judy. “Sometimes you are better off to move on, find a place somewhere else to raise cattle, maybe more private property and less government ground, less issues to deal with.”

Dudfield expects pushback, regulatory challenges and a long, bumpy road to any mining operation here. It’s an area where mineral extraction has been changing the landscape for a century, such as a mercury mine that closed in 1990.

“Lithium is mined. It doesn’t fall out of the sky as snow,” said Dudfield. “If people want mobile phones; they want electric vehicles; they want to be able to store “green energy” so that when the sun’s not shining or the winds not blowing’ they still have electricity, then they’re going to need lithium-ion batteries.

Fred Wilkinson understands the dynamic, but also understands there are choices that have to be made.

“Yeah, this is important — the cell phone. But are we going to eat the cell phone? People don’t even think about eating. That’s the thing. And I know they never will until they get hungry,” said Fred.

There’s no drilling now. Jindalee is leaving the land alone during prime cattle grazing months. But those drill crews will be back at work in September.
If it ever happens, full-scale mining could still be ten years out.

Exactly how much could it be worth? That’s impossible to calculate. There are just so many variables to factor in.

Using figures Jindalee Resources Limited has made public and an average long-term contract price for a metric ton of lithium carbonate, the deposit could be — and we need to stress these are our calculations, not Jindalee’s —  $200 billion to $300 billion. To be clear, Jindalee has not made that kind of prediction about potential value. 

▶️ Come inside Red Rock Corral, the newest addition to Sisters Rodeo

People attending the Sisters Rodeo are getting to experience something new — the Red Rock Corral.

It’s an indoor-outdoor, walk-through rodeo entertainment venue dedicated to the one and only Hall of Fame bull Red Rock.

Inside, you’ll see photos of Red Rock being ridden by world champion and fellow PCRA Hall of Famer Lane Frost.

There’s more history to be found on the wall.

“The siding on the wall is basically the old seats out of the wooden bleachers,” said Sisters Rodeo President Curt Kallberg. “We used to paint the numbers on, or route them on. So these would have been the seats that were being filled when Red Rock was in his heyday.”

Red Rock Corral Siding
The siding of the Red Rock Corral in Sisters, Oregon, is made from seats people sat in years ago at the Sisters Rodeo during the run of legendary bull Red Rock.

The building itself came from just down the road.

“This old building was originally the old fire hall at Cloverdale. They built a new building and they said ‘Hey! Do you want an old building?’and we said ‘Yeah. We’ll take that old building.'”

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It did put a gouge in the budget, but Curt figures it was worth it.

“We had to scrape up all the pennies we could but I think it was a dollar,” Curt said.

The Red Rock Corral is adjacent to the arena so patrons can hear the crowd, feel the vibe and don’t have to miss a second of the action.

“We have live screen big feed. We have one here and we have three outside under the cover so people can still be part of the Sisters Rodeo,” Curt said.

And when the roping and riding is finished for the night, the music starts with a live band.

“We’ll have a live band out on the stage.. dry canyon stampede so after the rodeo we’ll have the band going. It will only go to 11:30..

The Red Rock Corral was put together by 200 volunteers.