Tuesday, 18 Feb 2003

BEND, Ore.

Last night, after recuperating from a local town hall meeting with Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden (D) and Gordon Smith (R), I finished reading Nothing Like It in the World, Stephen Ambrose’s book about the building of the transcontinental railroad. A quote from a foreman on the Union Pacific Railroad, Dan Ferguson, struck me as particularly prescient. Ferguson wrote in his diary in the summer of 1868 that, “The time is coming and fast too, where in the sense it is now understood, there will be no west.”

Bull elk at the Badlands.

This is a sentiment that was never far from the minds and hearts of many of the settlers who displaced natives, both humans and wildlife, as they made the West their new home. Fortunately, their conquest of the West was not entire. There are still pieces of the former world left for us to preserve and cherish.

It is my own belief that wildlands are what bind together the generations — past, present, and future. As a kid, I remember hunting deer near Awbrey Butte and the West Hills of Bend, Ore. These areas seemed far from town at the time. Today, both areas are subdivisions well within the city limits. In my short life, it is astonishing to witness such change, but my tale is hardly unique. Similar stories are eerily common throughout the west.

As I listen to my elders tell stories about little-known wild places throughout Oregon’s High Desert, I am reminded of how important these lands are. The Badlands, an area just 15 miles east of Bend, is one such remnant wildland — and although the possibility of a war on Iraq was appropriately the most common topic at last night’s meeting, the Badlands was also discussed. Supporters wearing bright orange “Protect Badlands Wilderness” stickers packed into the auditorium at a local high school, prompting Smith to comment, “I see a lot of orange stickers around the room today; I guess that means you want us to work on wilderness.”

Ironically, like many of the other remaining wilderness areas in the U.S., the Badlands remains wild simply because no one wanted to claim it — and those who did failed in their attempt to bend it to their will. Like Brussels sprouts pushed to the side of a dinner plate, these lands are our least-wanted, our leftovers.

Pronghorn antelope.

Nevertheless, places like the Badlands have become increasingly valuable as our country becomes overwhelmed by growth and development. Amid the expansion of urban areas like Bend, the Badlands serves as habitat for a variety of species — mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, pronghorn antelope, prairie falcons, American kestrels, gopher snakes, sagebrush lizards, American badgers, long-tailed weasels, and a variety of bats, to name just a few. The area is also host to Native American pictographs, unique geologic formations known as inflated lava, and a dose of peace and tranquility that is ever valuable to us as humans.

The Badlands is an area that activists have sought to protect as wilderness for nearly two decades. Wilderness status would close the area to off-road vehicles, thereby mitigating defacement of archeological and cultural sites, garbage dumping, and the illegal cutting of juniper trees that are over 1,000 years old.

Pictograph vandalism.

Protection would be incredibly timely. Only two weeks ago, several Native American pictographs were vandalized, at least one of them so thoroughly that it is lost to us forever. Fortunately, details of the pictographs had been recorded and a local archaeologist, perhaps searching for some consolation, commented, “The documentation allows us to know what we have lost.”

Despite a recent push by a diverse coalition of local ranchers, businesses, landowners, and conservation groups, the Badlands still remains unprotected. Through the collective efforts of past, present, and future generation, this area could be Oregon’s newest desert wilderness. If you have a couple of moments, you can send a fax from our website urging Oregon’s Congress members to protect this spectacular area. Or, if you want to go all out, give them a call. Here are their phone numbers:

Ron Wyden: 202-224-5444
Gordon Smith: 202-224-3753
Rep. Greg Walden (R): 202-225-6730

As Olaus Murie once proclaimed, “God bless America, let’s save some of it!”