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900,000 acres permanently withdrawn from mining and geothermal development,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:
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