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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"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.

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