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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...