Go tell it on the mountain

  • Steens Mountain

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Near summit of Steens Mountain

    Ancil Nance photo
  • Clinton's Land Legacy logo

  • Bruce Babbitt

    Ed Marston photo
  • Borax Hot Springs in the Alvord Desert

    Stephen Trimble photo
  • Big Indian Gorge on Steens Mountain

    Stephen Trimble photo
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.