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Lands Worth Fighting For: Steens Mountain
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The Planet
Lands Worth Fighting For:
Steens Mountain

By Tom Valtin

"The blankest spot on the map left in the Lower 48 states is southeast Oregon," says Bob Michael of the Sierra Club’s Desert Peaks Section. "It’s the loneliest, emptiest, most forgotten outback left in this country."

Crowning Oregon’s empty quarter is 9,733-foot Steens Mountain, an oasis of aspen groves, clear-running streams, glacier-scoured gorges, and wildlife habitat in a sea of sagebrush hundreds of miles wide. But the BLM’s failure to keep vehicles out of the new Steens Mountain Wilderness threatens to pit the Sierra Club against the agency. "This has a huge negative impact on the wilderness," says Oregon Chapter Chair Jill Workman.

"The local BLM wants to do the right thing," says Jerry Sutherland of the chapter’s High Desert Committee. "But it struggles under the pressure of local opposition to wilderness and the administration of a president who does not share the pro-environment views of his predecessor."

On paper, Steens is protected. On October 30, 2000, President Clinton signed the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, commonly known as the Steens Act. Among its highlights was a 425,000-acre Cooperative Management and Protection Area, including 170,000 acres of designated wilderness (97,000 of which are livestock-free), 900,000 acres permanently withdrawn from mining and geothermal development, a redband trout reserve to protect native fish populations, and three creeks designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

In 1989, the High Desert Committee formed out of the Oregon Chapter to help protect the most deserving wilderness-quality lands in Oregon’s high desert region. Steens Mountain and the Owyhee Canyonlands (see facing page) quickly became its top priorities.

Throughout the 1990s, the High Desert Committee worked to get Steens on people’s radar. "We led outings to Steens, everything from car camping to week-long backpacking trips," says Workman. "Once people see what a beautiful area it is, once they’ve sat around the campfire, seen the overgrazing, and come to understand the issues, they want to become a volunteer and write a letter to the BLM or turn out for meetings."

"Long before Clinton came on the scene, the High Desert Committee built the foundation that allowed us to take advantage of the opportunity he presented," says Sutherland. "Members served on councils and working groups, pounded the sagebrush with BLM and ranchers, led outings, submitted public comments, built relationships with legislative offices—all long before the final push for legislation."

Chapter volunteers and staff held phonebanks, tabled and collected signatures, gave talks and slide shows, and did "all the things that make other environmental groups want us at the table," according to Sutherland. "Passage of the Steens Act was a major victory for the Club and our partner groups. This was a story with a happy ending until Bush showed up."

In 1999 Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt let it be known that he was considering Steens as a candidate for national monument designation. This so alarmed local ranchers and landowners that they asked their congressman to intercede. Babbitt went along with Congressman Greg Walden’s request to give Oregonians a chance to create and pass protective legislation in lieu of a national monument—but retained the option of monument designation failing an agreement.

Conservationists used Babbitt’s support of permanent protection for Steens as a catalyst to gain the protections they were seeking and to ensure passage of a wilderness bill that did not contain exceptions to the Wilderness Act. Local landowners received the land exchanges they sought to consolidate their operations, with a resulting consolidation of public lands. They also received a combined total of $5 million to pay for water developments and to compensate them for changes to their operations.

"The public paid more than the assessed value for some strategic acquisitions, but I think people who have visited the area would agree that ‘overpayment’ for places like Kiger Gorge (the most dramatic of the Westside gorges) was worth it," says Workman, who represented the Sierra Club in the negotiations.

Clinton’s signing of the Steens Act was cause for celebration among all parties involved, and the collaborative process that led to it was heralded as a new model for protecting wild places nationwide. But the BLM’s failure to uphold the wilderness provisions of the Act has been a source of frustration for wilderness supporters. "Unfortunately, the job isn’t done when wilderness legislation is passed," says High Desert Committee Chair Ken Snider. "Legislation doesn’t protect lands; people do. That’s what the High Desert Committee is all about."

In July, the BLM issued a decision allowing landowners and leaseholders unrestricted motorized access to their properties within the Steens Mountain Wilderness—a decision the committee plans to appeal. All inholders and lessees were given keys to the locked gates on roads leading into the wilderness, giving them vehicular access to the wilderness whenever they wish. This unlimited access, says Sutherland, is unique to Steens; elsewhere in the country the strict rules governing vehicular access to private lands inside designated wilderness are strongly enforced.

One inholder already has permission from the county to build a residence on his property, and another—an outfitter who leads pack trips on the mountain—wants to build permanent structures to house guests. "One of our biggest concerns is that these lands could be developed for commercial or residential use," says Workman. "We’d like the Department of Interior to buy the remaining private lands from willing sellers, but under Bush there’s no impetus for this." The Steens Act mandated that a 12-member Steens Mountain Advisory Council (SMAC) be formed to advise the BLM on implementation and management of Steens. Only two members of the council are "environmental representatives" (Jerry Sutherland is one); the rest represent off-road vehicle users, landowners, ranchers, and others, including American Indian tribes and sportsmen. It takes nine votes to make a recommendation to the BLM. The four local landowners on the council have killed every motion to limit motorized access to wilderness inholdings.

Compounding the problem, sixteen of the 20 SMAC meetings have been held at the BLM office in Harney County, a five-hour drive from Oregon’s main population centers where support for wilderness is high. Thus, the BLM has heard a disproportionate number of anti-wilderness voices. Three meetings held in Bend, closer to where most Oregonians live, were dominated by wilderness supporters.

Asked why meetings aren’t held in more populous parts of the state, Sutherland replies: "A rancher who sits on the council likes to say, ‘Steens belongs to us. When they move Steens to Portland, we’ll hold a meeting there.’"

"It is tremendously difficult for the BLM and SMAC members not to be affected by this ‘home court advantage,’" Sutherland asserts. "When you’re hearing from angry folks on a regular basis, on the phone, at public meetings, in the grocery store, you can’t but wear down. Faced with locals lobbying them constantly, the local BLM has caved on limiting motorized access in the Steens Mountain Wilderness Area."

Wilderness advocates must now work to enforce some of the protective aspects of the Steens Act that they thought were a done deal. "If we can’t get BLM to uphold the wilderness provisions of the Steens Act," says Sutherland, "we’re faced with the prospect of ending up with a wilderness in name only."

Write or call your senators and representative asking for full federal funding to purchase inholdings in the Steens Mountain Wilderness from willing sellers. Write or call Oregon State BLM Director Elaine Brong and request that BLM limit the use of motorized vehicles in the Steens Wilderness, including by private inholders. Contact: Bureau of Land Management, P.O. Box 2965, Portland, OR 97208. Tel: (503) 808-6002.

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