Thursday, 20 Feb 2003

BEND, Ore.

Today, among other things, I am preparing to teach a class on Steens Mountain at the local community college. The class covers a range of topics, from natural history to conservation politics. This evening’s two-hour session will focus on the U.S. Congress’s decision, in 2000, to designate Steens as the nation’s first cow-free wilderness.

Steens Mountain, with Borax Lake in the foreground.

Steens Mountain has towered over Southeast Oregon for nearly a million years, according to geologists. That actually makes it a spring chicken as far as mountains go, but of course, much of the rock and dirt that forms it has been here much longer — millions and even billions of years. As the land was forced upward by geologic forces, glaciers were created that gradually carved away significant parts of the mountain. Today, we are left with a national treasure and a sight that dazzles thousands of visitors each year.

In 1999, one of those visitors was then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. After standing atop the summit of Steens Mountain and looking out over the vast Alvord Desert some 5,000 feet below, he declared that he believed the area worthy of National Monument status.

Local ranchers, never ones to be told what to do by the federal government (although always happy to be the beneficiaries of extensive federal subsidies), opted to cut a deal with conservationists, resulting in the nation’s first Cooperative Management and Protection Area. This designation created a 500,000-acre area that is closed to off-road vehicle use, geothermal and mineral development, and includes 175,000 acres of federally designated wilderness.

Three years later, questions of what it all means still abound. Stakeholders continue to argue over interpretations and priorities. Tonight, I’ve invited aides from the offices of Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) and Rep. Greg Walden (R) to share their understandings of what the designations mean, as well as their visions for the mountain’s future.

A hiker takes a break near Pike Creek.

If prior classes are any indication, a few students will be intrigued by the discussion but most will be daydreaming about their favorite spots on Steens. Maybe a hike up to the “eyes” of Pike Creek, or a picnic atop the overlook at 2,000-foot-deep Kiger Gorge, or fly fishing on the Blitzen River with three gorges and a 10,000 foot snow-capped mountain towering in the background.

Like these students, most folks avoid the politics of conservation — and understandably so. It is a slow and painful process. Efforts to protect Steens began over three decades ago and still the work is only partially complete. Most of us don’t want to spend our time fighting to protect these areas; we want to spend our time enjoying them. Such is the conundrum.

This class is one of many ways in which ONDA provides education that will hopefully build a love of Oregon’s high desert and an understanding of what it takes to protect these places for future generations. If only one or two of the people in the class become desert wilderness activists, it will be time well spent.