Some 20 miles southwest of Otley's ranch, on the gentle western slope of Steens Mountain, sprawls the Roaring Springs Ranch, the largest in the protected area. It's where the final details of the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management Act were hammered out. "The whole mantra was to keep the mountain like it is," says ranch manager Stacy Davies, a key player.
The Oregon Natural Desert Association, or ONDA, a conservation group based in Bend, Ore., had long pushed for Steens Mountain to become a national park, where livestock grazing would be prohibited. In 1999, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt -- who first heard about Steens in a college geology course -- swooped into Harney County with an ultimatum: Find a way to protect the mountain, or accept a national monument. Ranchers didn't need to be reminded of the recent designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which forbade future development, eliminated cross-country motor vehicle travel and -- critics feared -- opened the door to reduce grazing across a huge swath of federal land.
So Davies got together with a hunter, an Audubon Society staffer and a few other stakeholders to draft some legislation, which then kicked around the offices of Oregon's congressional delegation for about a year before finding its way back to Roaring Springs. Here, Davies and Otley sat down at the dining-room table with two of public-lands grazing's greatest enemies: Bill Marlett, then director of ONDA, and The Wilderness Society's Kerr. Over a few cans of Coors, they worked out the details of a law they hoped would satisfy conservationists without harming local ranches.
In October 2000, Clinton signed it. The new law designated three wild and scenic rivers and a trout reserve and forbade development of federal mineral and geothermal resources (except gravel pits) on Steens Mountain and surrounding lands. It also created the first cow-free wilderness area in the United States. Five ranches, including Otley's and Davies', surrendered a total 18,446 acres of high-elevation private land in exchange for over $5 million and 104,236 acres of arid, low-elevation grazing land.
The act set up the 12-member Steens Mountain Advisory Council to advise the BLM. Council seats are reserved for representatives of outfitters, wild horses, hunting and fishing, motorized and non-motorized recreation and the Burns Paiute Tribe. There are also two seats for environmentalists, two for grazing permittees and one for a local landowner.
The act promised a new future for the mountain, one in which conservationists and ranchers would work together toward common goals. Although ranchers resented the federal government's involvement, they could still run cows on most of the mountain. And conservationists were delighted that the area finally had some protection. But once the advisory council began giving input to the BLM on roads, recreation and other plans for the mountain, the collaborative mechanism began to fray at the edges.
"I told Stacy (Davies) in the beginning, I'm going to give this five years before I file another lawsuit, and we'll see where it goes," says Marlett, who feared that the advisory council was weighted toward local economic interests. Environmentalists are outnumbered by motorized recreation and grazing representatives; there is only one seat for a statewide environmental professional, and ONDA staffers, including Marlett, applied five different times to fill it, only to be turned down by the Interior secretary. A Sierra Club staffer held the seat for some years, but now it's occupied by David Bilyeu, a librarian at Central Oregon Community College and an avid hiker. Joan Suther, the BLM's local field manager, is concerned about the balance on the council: "I'm not sure we have captured all the opinions we should," she says.
As Marlett had promised, ONDA waited five years. Then, in 2006, it sued over the BLM's resource management plan, charging that the agency didn't adequately consider wilderness values. Otley and other landowners spent over $100,000 to intervene, worried they'd lose motorized access to their grazing allotments. ONDA lost, but sued the BLM again in 2008, this time over an aggressive program supported by the advisory council that prescribed use of vehicles and chainsaws in the wilderness to control invasive western juniper. A settlement is pending.
The Steens Mountain group, unlike other BLM advisory councils in the state, "hasn't worked real well" for a number of reasons, says Borden Beck, the chairman of the Oregon Sierra Club's High Desert Committee. The Steens Act "never made crystal-clear how private inholdings in the protection area would be handled," he says. And now the council has to "backfill holes in the legislation, controversial stuff they left undone. It's just ripe for lawsuits from either side."