The ranch restored: An overworked land comes back to life

  • Trout Creek Mountains in Oregon and Nevada

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • THEY LOOKED FOR SOLUTIONS: Connie and Doc Hatfield

    Ed Marston photo
  • Willow Creek was mostly devoid of willows in the 1980s

    Photo courtesy Bob Kindschy
  • Planting tree cuttings along the creek in the 1970s mostly failed

    courtesy Kindschy
  • SURROUNDED BY WILLOWS: A tour of Trout Creek in the 1990s

    courtesy Kindschy
 

Note: in three sidebar articles accompanying this feature story, environmentalist Kathleen Simpson Myron, environmentalist Rose Strickland, and retired BLM range conservationist Earl McKinney give their perspectives in their own words.

McDERMITT, Nev. - The Trout Creek Mountains of southeastern Oregon will never rank among America's most magnificent peaks. Although beautiful in their way, the Trout Creeks rise to only 8,000 feet, with summits more plateau than crag, more sagebrush than lichen. In places, canyons in the Trout Creeks are deep and wild. But they are not the grand canyons of the Yellowstone or Colorado, not even the glacier-carved gorges of nearby Steens Mountain.

Nor have the Trout Creeks made a mark in the world of letters. In decades of writing about the West, Wallace Stegner never mentioned them. Stephen Trimble's The Sagebrush Ocean, a natural history of the Great Basin, contains no reference to the range. The Black Rock Desert to the south, Hart Mountain to the west, Steens Mountain to the north - those are the places in this part of the Great Basin that get noticed. The Trout Creeks simply get overlooked.

Perhaps it is the distance. Eight hours by car from Portland, six from Reno, the Trout Creeks are too remote for most weekend campers, too unheralded for most vacations. There are no visitor centers in the range, no developed campgrounds. The Oregon-Nevada border, which slices through the southern edge of the Trout Creeks, amplifies the sense of distance, brings a no-man's-land feeling to the landscape. Part of two states, the Trout Creek Mountains seem not quite connected to either one.

Even the clouds seem to neglect the Trout Creeks. While the ocean-born storms of the Pacific Northwest grow majestic forests and spawn big rivers to the west, they wither over the Trout Creeks and yield a lesser bounty. Streams are of the kind you can step across. They flow not into rivers that run to the sea, but die in shimmering alkali flats. A few shaggy stands of mountain mahogany masquerade as old growth. What moisture does fall keeps a cruel schedule. Most arrives not in the spring as life-giving rain but as winter snowstorms that pass through quickly, followed, often, by numbing cold.

History, too, has not been generous with the Trout Creeks. They have had their Indian battles, military posts and mining strikes. But like winter snows, history happens quickly and moves on.

The one exception is ranching. Ranchers, not miners, brought settlement to the region, and today, a small community of ranchers, some descended from early settlers, remains tethered to the Trout Creeks, moored to the mountain range like ships to a shore.

Today, it is the ranchers who are making the area known beyond its borders, and they are doing it by succeeding where others have failed, by turning adversity into opportunity. Faced with serious obstacles - including a federally protected species on their public grazing allotments, miles of sensitive riparian zones and five federal wilderness study areas - Trout Creek ranchers are not only continuing to graze cattle, they have also negotiated some of the most secure grazing rights in the West. And they have done it not in the customary fashion - with angry words and legal challenges. They have done it by joining with government and conservationists to develop new grazing methods that produce not only hamburger but healthy habitat for fish and wildlife. It is not the kind of drama that grabs Hollywood. But it should. For what is happening is filled with promise for much of the rest of the West.

The reason is simple: More than 150 million acres of federal rangelands are, to varying degrees, overgrazed. More than three-quarters of all riparian areas - moist zones along streams - are overgrazed. Ten years ago, the Trout Creeks would have fit such a description. But today, willow and aspen grow thick along creeks. Lahontan cutthroat trout are on the rebound. Groundwater basins are expanding. The sagebrush that invaded is dying from too much moisture, while perennial grasses proliferate. To stand high in the range and look out across its streams, sparkling like tinsel in the dry days of September, is to look upon a Lazarus landscape back from the dead.

Cultural changes are impressive, too. When ranchers meet with the Bureau of Land Management and conservationists, they arrange themselves in a circle and talk things out. This process has a name: the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group. Things do not always go smoothly. There are times of frustration and disagreement. In 1994, one conservationist left the group in anger. But these days, conflict gets reshaped into rough agreement.

"The Trout Creek Mountains are about the future of ranching in the West," said Doc Hatfield, a central Oregon rancher instrumental in bringing change to the area. "If we can have economics and ecology without trampling property rights or compromising the BLM's obligations to the public, then we've got it in the bag."

Grazing - an old story

The first public warning about overgrazing came in 1902. Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House.

"The public ranges of the region are in many places badly depleted," wrote David Griffiths, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist, in Forage Conditions on the Northern Border of the Great Basin. Traveling from Winnemucca, Nev., to Ontario, Ore., on horseback, Griffiths had visited six Great Basin ranges, including the Trout Creeks. "This is directly traceable to overstocking and it does not appear clear how matters will improve in the near future."