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

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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."

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