FRENCHGLEN, Ore. - Atop 9,600-foot Steens Mountain, a brisk northwest wind races up the spectacular U-shaped canyon of Little Blitzen Creek at dawn. Howling over the top of golden aspen trees in the canyon below, the wind rips up-canyon to a steep alpine bowl at the top of the draw, and - poof! - like magic, creamy clouds form at the summit.
For a moment, the clouds cling to the edge of a mile-high cliff. But the force of the roaring gale hurls them into a void above the Alvord Desert, where they vanish.
The gusts seem appropriate on this crisp fall morning, since the winds of change are blowing with a fury on Steens Mountain in eastern Oregon. Right now, the 900,000-acre mountain is a relatively well-kept secret, managed by the Bureau of Land Management under no official label. But in August, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited nearby Burns, the heart of Oregon cattle country, and there he announced that he intends to protect the mountain as a federal treasure.
"We're thrilled," says Bill Marlett, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a group that has long advocated national park status for the Steens. His group now backs a national monument designation - as long as 18,000 cattle and 35 ranchers are yanked off the mountain by a massive government buyout.
At least 30 percent of the mountain is privately owned - about 232,000 acres. At $1,000 an acre, a buyout would cost $232 million.
Babbitt has a different vision. The secretary has pledged to preserve ranching in the Steens, meaning that he'll help ranchers keep their inholdings. And Steens ranchers, who have improved stewardship on the mountain (HCN, 3/1/99) and who provide free access to campers, anglers and hunters, want to stay.
"Basically, our ranch isn't for sale," says Stacy Davies, manager of the Roaring Springs Ranch, the largest on the mountain. "In my life, I have a vision of making a ranch a model for ecological stewardship and economic sustainability. This is a ranch where that can work. It would be just heartbreaking to have that vision destroyed."
Babbitt has promised that the Clinton administration will not make the Steens an instant national monument, as it did prior to the 1996 election with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. "I'm not going to pull off some kind of surprise while everyone is eating their Christmas turkey," he says. Instead, he gave a local agency advisory committee two months to craft a legislative plan for a national conservation area at Steens Mountain. If they don't reach an agreement, Babbitt hinted, Clinton will create a Steens National Monument in election year 2000.
Big-league politics will hover like a turkey vulture over the Steens for the next year, as Babbitt seeks to enhance his legacy, improve the chances for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, and carve out Clinton's place in history. The Steens fight will also test Babbitt's longtime support of local decision making. At this lonely Great Basin landmark, he'll find out if those who know the mountain best can preserve it for the nation.
A stormy monument
Steens Mountain looms like a towering icon in the open landscape, its snow-streaked rocky brow reaching higher than any other mountain between the Cascades and the Northern Rockies.
Basalt and rhyolite lava flows formed the geologic core of the Steens about 8 million years ago. The flows inscribed dramatic brown and red horizontal bands and vertical columns on the mountain's flanks. Later, the 65-mile-long mountain rose in a great tilt from the Alvord Desert. With each earthquake episode, the mountain grew taller and the valley dropped in elevation. Glaciers put a finishing touch on the west slope of the Steens, carving out 10 U-shaped canyons that flow toward the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Babbitt was entranced with the Steens after an overflight with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber in August. "It's the only place I've seen where you have alpine glacial valleys end in the desert," he said. "I was impressed with the whole area, (the) high alpine country adjacent to a national wildlife refuge with exceptional diversity and importance."
Seven streams on the west slope form the Donner und Blitzen River - German for "thunder and lightning' - so named by German immigrants for the mountain's stormy moods. A 56-mile loop of gravel road provides jaw-dropping scenic views, from aspen and cottonwood-lined creeks to knots of mountain mahogany on windswept ridges to alpine meadows and rocky peaks at the summit.
The Bureau of Land Management estimates that most of the 30,000 people who visit the Steens each year drive and camp along the loop road. The more hardy cross the Steens on the Desert Trail, a 150-mile hiking route from the Pueblo Mountains at the Nevada border to Riddle Mountain, southeast of Burns.
Hunters chase sage grouse, chukar partridge, elk, mule deer, antelope and bighorn sheep in the fall. Anglers pursue redband trout.