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

Page 4

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.

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