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for people who care about the West

Go tell it on the mountain

 

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.

"It's danged fun to go fish for redbands," says rancher Davies. "We catch 18-inchers in Skull Creek." In the Alvord Desert, Mann Creek Reservoir is a magnet for anglers seeking hefty hybrid Lahontan cutthroats. Alvord Hot Springs, covered by a dented tin shack riddled with bullet holes, is a popular stop for campers and birders.

The Steens provides a refuge for the coveted Kiger mustangs and several other wild horse herds. At BLM roundups, Kigers can fetch up to $13,000 because some believe they can be traced to ancient Spanish bloodlines.

Another unique characteristic: At least eight plants found nowhere else in the Great Basin reside on Steens Mountain. Donald Mansfield, a biology professor at Albertson College of Idaho in Caldwell, says the plants suggest that the range was linked to the Sierra Nevada and Northern Rockies in earlier times.

"It's a stepping stone, really, between the two ranges," Mansfield says. "The plants are telling us something about the land connections in the Pleistocene era, but we don't know many details."

Mansfield has written a letter to the Burns BLM, urging it to protect rare plants from cows and people, no matter what kind of new designation the Steens receives. "Here you've got something so unique, botanically, that I'd hate to see it wrecked any more before we know what we've got," he says.

The political landscape

For decades, environmentalists have pushed for more protection for Steens Mountain. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore., requested a national park study in the 1960s. In 1991, Hatfield and then-Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., introduced a proposal for a national conservation area, and Rep. Bob Smith, R-Ore., sponsored a competing proposal. Neither passed Congress.

So Babbitt's proposal for a BLM-managed national conservation area may be the best chance yet to safeguard the Steens. While national parks operate under a strict set of general regulations, the management of national conservation areas can vary widely. With this flexibility in mind, Babbitt had called for the 15-member BLM Southeast Oregon Resource Advisory Council to come up with a general plan for a Steens National Conservation Area by Oct. 15, including a wilderness proposal and a grazing management plan.

The Resource Advisory Council (RAC) model is Babbitt's brainchild. Established early in his tenure, the councils include ranchers, outfitters, environmental groups, tribal representatives and other community members, and they're designed to increase local participation in BLM decisions.

Yet he handed the Southeast Oregon council a job of national proportions. It could effect big changes on Steens Mountain, says Miles Brown, BLM field manager for the Andrews Resource Area in Burns. The amount of wilderness that could be established in the area is "wide open," he says, and a conservation area designation might help the agency secure Land and Water Conservation Fund monies to buy some of the scattered private parcels.

But at an Oct. 27 meeting with Babbitt, held at a cozy dining-room table in the Sage Country Inn Bed and Breakfast in Burns, the committee submitted a three-page report opposing a new designation for the Steens. While many groups and individuals from western and central Oregon supported a national monument or large-scale wilderness area, said the report, most local landowners were hostile to tougher protection.

Advisory council chairman Mike Golden, a retired biologist, also reported that the committee needed more time to wrestle with the wilderness question.

"There's no question about it - wilderness is the diciest issue," he says. "The other difficult one is grazing, how much and where."

It wasn't the outcome Babbitt might have hoped for, but he prodded the group to continue negotiations. "This report is right on in terms of my understanding of the land and your concerns," he told the group. "We ought to set up a process where we can determine what we agree on, and what disagreements remain."

The committee agreed to form a small group of five to seven people to work on the outlines of a legislative plan with Gov. Kitzhaber and with Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who represents Harney County and rural Oregon. Eventually, Babbitt said, all Oregon senators and congressmen must support the bill.

"We've got to have them all," he said. "The climate in Washington is such that anybody can block anything." He promised to return in January to check on progress and help citizens hammer out a deal.

Babbitt convinced the committee that a legislative plan crafted by Oregon people would be preferable to letting outsiders decide what's right for Steens Mountain. If they can come up with a plan, "any talk of the Park Service taking over this area will be off the table for several generations," he said. His veiled threat was answered by a round of knowing smiles.

The holdouts

But the committee hasn't been talking about turning the area over to the Park Service, and it's not talking about ending grazing on the Steens. Babbitt's loyalty to the BLM and his commitment to keeping ranchers in business have tempered the initial enthusiasm of some environmentalists.

"They're never going to deliver what we want," Bill Marlett says of the BLM.

"If this designation amounts to just changing pretty colors on a map, we won't support it," says Wendell Wood, the Oregon Natural Resources Council's southern field representative in Klamath Falls. "This is literally the crown jewel in Oregon's high desert. To us, it's a no-brainer. Any kind of protection that doesn't eliminate livestock grazing, off-road vehicles and mining is really no protection at all."

"Cows can graze just about everywhere in eastern Oregon," says Alice Elshoff, an Oregon Natural Desert Association board member based in Frenchglen. "We think there're some places that shouldn't have cows."

Neither the Oregon Natural Resources Council nor the Natural Desert Association are participating in the negotiations.

Other environmentalists have more hope for the effort. Jill Workman, who represents the Sierra Club on the council, believes that a solution could include continued grazing.

"The Sierra Club has a long history of working things out with the cattle industry," she says. "It's not going to be something that both sides really love, but hopefully we'll be able to live with it."

She says some ranchers have worked hard to protect streambanks from overgrazing, and she salutes Stacy Davies for signing conservation agreements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect redband trout.

"The owner of Roaring Springs Ranch is an avid fisherman and hunter. He really wants to do what's right for fish and wildlife," Workman says.

Rancher Fred Otley, who organized Friends of Steens Mountain to ensure that private landowners get a fair shake, says ranchers will have to be good stewards to remain on the mountain. "We've worked really hard to manage livestock in a progressive manner," he says. "We've got proof with photos and documentation."

The ranchers also have the support of Gov. John Kitzhaber, who's expected to help shepherd any new designation. "It's not a rational position to talk about buying out the ranchers," says Peter Green, senior natural resources aide for Kitzhaber. "I don't see that as a realistic or necessary solution."

But the council members have to do more than agree among themselves. Any legislation that includes grazing is sure to draw criticism from hardline environmentalists, and they're aware of their political power.

"If environmentalists don't hail it as a great thing, if we say, 'This is crap,' then the administration doesn't get as many points," says Andy Kerr, who represents The Wilderness Society on the Steens Mountain issue. "Babbitt is trying to take livestock grazing off the table, but we're not going to let him."

At what price?

Many people in Oregon question what may be gained - or lost - by a new classification for the Steens. Locals fear the "Yosemite syndrome" may lead to more visitors, more paved roads, more law enforcement, and less primitive character for this relatively unknown place. And if ranchers and private property owners are angry with the results of Babbitt's proposal, barbed-wire fences and no-trespassing signs could go up on private land in a hurry.

Cindy Witzel runs Steens Mountain Packers with her husband, John, who grew up on a ranch in the Steens. They guide summer horseback riding trips, elk-hunting trips, bird-hunting trips and backcountry ski adventures. "Yeah, we stand to gain, but it'll change this area forever," Witzel says. "We'd rather see no designation."

Even the liberal Register-Guard in Eugene and The Oregonian in Portland have editorialized against Babbitt's plan.

"Solitude is Steens Mountain's most fragile feature," the Register-Guard editorial said. "A caravan of RVs making its dusty way from Fish Lake Road to the summit will have a greater effect on Steens Mountain than a herd of cattle in Kiger Gorge."

Although Babbitt says his proposal for the Steens "really isn't about legacy," history judges Interior secretaries by the national treasures they protect from the long arm of development - and the controversies they brave to do it. Think of Stewart Udall and Cecil Andrus; they made their mark with a bevy of national parks, wilderness areas and monuments, all of which faced local opposition.

"If you look back at nearly every national monument in this country," says Kerr, "the locals fought it and hated the idea, but they were rolled by the greater national interest."

Babbitt believes this bitterness can be avoided. By giving locals a chance to chart the future of the Steens and other areas around the West, he hopes to convince them that new, tougher protections are necessary. If his approach works, he could leave a different - some might say happier - legacy than his predecessors. And if it doesn't? Unless he wants his proposals to vanish like the clouds on Steens Mountain, he'll have to be willing to take the heat.

"The future is coming at us," he says. "We have to get out ahead of the game and protect these areas before it's too late."

Idaho writer Stephen Stuebner has camped, hiked and hot-springed in the Steens Mountain area since 1981.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- One proposal nearly runs aground

- Babbitt looks for support on his home turf

- The secretary's must-do list for Western lands

... plus several sidebars in which stakeholders share their views in their own words, available in the "Sidebar" section of this online issue.

You can contact ...

* Bureau of Land Management, Burns district, 541/573-4400;

* Southeast Oregon Resource Advisory Council (RAC), Mike Golden, chairman, 541/504-1475;

* Friends of Steens Mountain, Fred Otley, chairman, 541/493-2702;

* Oregon Natural Desert Association, Bill Marlett, executive director, 541/330-2638;

* Sierra Club, Oregon chapter, 503/239-8478.