Nearing the top of Steens Mountain, I crumbled to a halt on the
freshly graveled loop road and looked back for the solitary
figure pumping his bicycle up the long hill in a wobbling slow
meander. He wore a strange tan hat with the bill cocked over to
one side and a cloth stuffed trout seeming to swim through its
center. On one handlebar was slung a dust-caked plastic grocery
bag, brimming with the weight of empty cans and cardboard that
served to pull his laboring pumps off in the clumsy, near tipping,
progress of his climb.
Grinning broadly, Zephyr Moore at last reached my spot on the
road, and from his tee shirt advertising the Oregon Natural Desert
Association (ONDA) I could see he was on the same futile mission
as was I.
Great, isnt it?...Except for them cows, said Zephyr in what
immediately amounted to a proclamation of his stance. What few
cattle could be seen from the road stared curiously at us from
a little crowd on the hillside. Like me, Zephyr had heard of ONDAs
Director Bill Marlette conducting some sort of swarée this Labor
Day weekend on Steens, but so far, Zephyr was having no better
luck finding it. Instead, all the way from the little village
of French Glen up these 10 miles or more, Zephyr had pedaled along
picking up every bit of trash he could see. Filled up three bags
already and sent em back with passing cars, he said proudly.
You had to be impressed by Zephyrs whimsical energy. He didnt
seem winded at all from the climb. Me, I was feeling the sort
of eyeball-to-toe exhaustion that finally gets to you after too
many long hours on the road. Since Wednesday, I had covered some
2,000 miles, enough to take me two-thirds of the way across the
country, but except for a corner of California, I had never left
northern Nevada or Oregon. That was about it for me, I had hit
the sleep-driving wall and I was still more than 200 miles from
home. I took the dusty bag of cans and trash from Zephyr and said
we could at least agree to disagree about the cows. Sure! he
said enthusiastically. You check it out on the way down, bet
you dont see any trash at all! And as I slowly turned around
and pulled away, he reminded me, Hey, dont forget, a lot of
that stuffs recyclable.
You cant get too upset at a guy with a trout through his head
who is willing to clean up a whole road by himself, even if theres
not much chance of convincing Zephyr that he might be a victim
of an orchestrated propaganda campaign that aims ultimately for
nothing short of the elimination of cattle from the entire West,
and with that a way of life and livelihood for people hell never
have the pleasure of knowing. Curiously, they are people a lot
like him, who love this mountain so much that many objected to
federal plans for the Steens road itself.
West of the Rockies, our ecosystem cant take the disturbance
of cattle, ONDAs science advisor Joy Belsky had told me. Things
are going to happen in the West pretty quickly, she said, first
on public lands like Steens where ONDA intends to phase out
grazing permits, but eventually, We would rather not see any
cattle at all west of the Rockies.
Belsky is neither shy nor apologetic about her groups role in
adding to the world of hurt out there for western cattlemen
facing economic problems from NAFTA (North American Fair Trade
Agreement) and oversupply. Cutting at the ranchers further with
claims for endangered species and supposedly over-grazed grasses
is just our job, she says. There arent many mom and pop operations
still hanging on. At some point soon, there wont be any poster
children left for the ranching industry.
They werent exactly poster kids who met with U.S. Senator Richard
Bryan (D-NV) that previous Wednesday in Lovelock, Nev. Led by
the Nevada Cattlemens Association president John Falen, the couple
of dozen ranchers who waited in the Community Center for Bryan
came with concern that the senators proposal to create a National
Conservation Area (NCA) in the Black Rock Desert is another piece
of hurt aimed at eliminating grazing rights.
Well, tell me who these folks are, John, Bryan skeptically asked
of Falen as the senator examined a letter with 79 signatures pleading
for no additional layers of bureaucratic control over the Black
Rock and its adjoining High Rock canyons. I mean, I see one here
from Carson City. Nobody from Carson City is going to be affected
by what goes on out there. The one from Carson City is rancher
Stu Brown, who holds a grazing permit in the Black Rock vicinity,
and is among the most prominent ranchers at this meeting. Other
signers are county and town officials, small businessmen, range
consultants and permit holders.
Oh, well, I see then, the senator said, but you have to know
this isnt even a formal proposal yet, nothings been written.
Everybody in the room knows Bryan proposed the same thing in 1993
and failed to win approval in Congress. He asks that the ranchers
see the big picture in protecting this historic area. From
what isnt quite clear, but only a few breaths away from questioning
the signatures on the ranchers petitions, Bryan adds that, There
is a lot of interest in an NCA. Why, the Reno Gazette already
wrote an editorial in favor of it.
The Black Rock Desert is probably best known as the site of the
annual Burning Man celebration of eccentricity on its vast white
sand playa over Labor Day weekend and of attempts there to break
the land speed record in the spring. But Bryans reach for a 1.2
million acre NCA goes beyond the hardpan desert into the slopes
and mesas of grazing country, reaching up near the Oregon border
almost to the proximity of Steens Mountain itself, some 200 miles
north and east.
And although Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has recently
taken Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber with him on helicopter tours
of Steens as a potential NCA or even National Heritage site,
Senator Bryan responds with a befuddled look to the ranchers in
Lovelock. Hes never heard of Steens, he said, nor of the ONDA,
which is spearheading environmentalist demands to link multimillions
of acres in southern Oregon and northern Nevada into one vast
cattle-free zone. At least four times, the senator and former
governor from Las Vegas reminds the ranchers of how generously
he spends every Labor Day weekend, for the last 11 years, visiting
with his rural neighbors in the north. I could be up at Lake
Tahoe now, rocking on the porch, he said, but Im here with
Bryan is in his last year of office. He has announced he will
not run again. He acknowledged that winning a new federal status
in the Black Rock/High Rock, for future generations, could serve
as part of his legacy, but he looked blankly back at the ranchers
who kept asking why another layer of federal control in addition
to current BLM management should be necessary. Nevada, he reminds
them pointlessly, is growing incredibly. Its not the same state
it was, not like when I was just starting out. ...Anyway, these
NCAs are tailor-written. Theres nothing to say grazing would
John Falen is, like the other western ranchers, overly polite
but unimpressed. It comes down to Gore and Clinton again, he
said, looking at the Big Picture of his own. The biggest problem
Ive got is the coercion. If you dont go along with these things,
it looks like they tried to listen, and yet very seldom does any
public meeting with them have any effect at all.
What is most disturbing is the so-called Babbitt initiative
to get as much done as possible before the end of the Clinton
administration. Its vague and full of the usual offers for public
input, but Babbitt has left little doubt about his own agenda
for restricting private uses of public resources all over the
West. Senator Bryan has in effect told the ranchers theyd better
show up for the dance, even if he has already chosen another partner.
Across the border into the Klamath Basin country of southern Oregon,
rancher Ambrose McAuliffe knows the problem well. Impatient plans
by federal authorities and environmentalists to redistribute water
rights on the Klamath have brought vacationing congressional staffers
by the busload into the region this summer, at the invitation
of environmentalists. We talk to them, said McAuliffe, but
we know its not us who is setting their agendaor paying their
I could be looking at a rapidly ending past as I roll along U.S.
395 and turn on to Highway 97, headed north. The puzzle pieces
of the Black Rock, Steens, the Sheldon range and even as far as
Klamath can all be imagined together under one grand regional
scheme of Babbitt and others in Interior to use Oregon and Nevada
as a showcase for the radical Wildlands Project. Its a stretch,
maybe, to link lands sometimes hundreds of miles apart into one
grand plan that nobody will officially admit to, but it works
out on a map. And it is now widely discussed in its implications
for establishing a vast contiguous wilderness over most of the
West as called for by the Wildlands Project first envisioned by
environmentalists in 1992.
Its imaginable already in the stands of dense National Forest
that blur by endlessly on either side of 97. And theres another
hint of the future in a slower, closer look at that forest so
thick and choked with undergrowth that it seems almost like a
green impenetrable wall.
Mother nature is a harsh old broad, John Hossack told me. Leave
it to her and shell manage the forest for you. But I dont think
anybody is going to like a million acre fire that cant be stopped.
Hossack spent 35 years in the Forest Service, retiring as superintendent
of the Clearwater Forest in 1983. Now, as a consultant to timber
firms, he views the western forest as, the sickest I have ever
seen any forest in my life. In a few years of holding up or eliminating
logging permits, the forest has grown decadent with disease,
insects, and fuel loading of smaller species, brush, and dead
trees that Hossack believes threatens a catastrophe by 2010 to
rival the now mostly-forgotten holocaust that roared over the
West in 1910. There is no management, he said, there is malignant
Since May, RANGE has repeatedly requested an interview with U.S.
Forest Service Director Michael Dombeck. Week after week, despite
appearances all over the West in which Dombeck urged his employees
to get the public on the side of new Forest Service policies,
the directors media handlers in Washington, D.C., insisted he
was too busy to talk with RANGE. At last, however, they offered
a meeting with Deputy Director Jim Furnish who is in charge of
Forest Management. Even that interview set for Portland almost
fell through when Furnish asked if we wouldnt mind making a slight
detour to Missoula, Mont.
Not to blame the fiftyish Furnish, however. Hes a busy man with
a lot of problems that begin with what even he admits is 30 million
acres of forest at risk from high density. But then he asks the
question himself about how to manage it. Do you allow more harvesting?
Or do you allow it to burn? Right now, he admits, its burn.
He cant have been that inculcated with environmentalist doctrine
from his 60s education at Iowa State, but Furnish is one of six
deputy directors under a Forest Service chief who prides himself
as a nob-headed scientific bureaucrat who made his way through
a stint as head of the BLM and is still on the best buddies list
of Bruce Babbitt and all the greens in the Interior Department.
Dombecks program for reinventing the service focuses on four
deceptively benign-sounding points: watershed health and restoration,
a long-term roads policy, sustainable forest management, and recreation.
Taken from the practical evidence so far, that means Dombeck is
claiming even more federal control over water, closing every road
he can, halting timber sales and putting up facades of recreation
on the perimeters of generally inaccessible forests. Its a wilderness
I know theres that feeling out there, but I dont agree, said
Furnish. The forest simply needs to be managed in a different
way than it has been over the last 50 years when the intent was
to meet a market for timber. Technology is different now, theres
not that need anymore.
And, as Furnish points out, when you dont need a road anymore,
why waste time and money keeping it open? Along what is probably
the most heavily traveled road in the Northwest, Interstate 5,
there is a corridor about 20 miles on either side that with burgeoning
new techno-industries and cosmetic tourist lures seems to serve
as proof of the Forest Services claims that the timber industry
can be retrained for more contemporary purposes. But in the deep
forests with their winding roads and small towns where the real
work was done, the economic hell lingers from the loss of more
than 70,000 jobs in the last 10 years.
Well, things happen, Furnish said. After World War II there
was a lot of demand for lumber. That shaped and fashioned a lot
of communities. Have they been affected by new policies? You bet.
All I can say is life can be hard. If the way youve been doing
things is unsuitable, you have to change.
This means less harvesting and less grazing, neither of which
Furnish believes is really essential to modern forest management.
At worst right now, he admitted, Forest Service policies might
be exporting the problem to other nations where ruinous short-term
methods to meet lumber demands could have disastrous ecological
effects. That, perhaps, was one reason why his boss, Dombeck,
was in Brazil at that very moment. Had Furnish ever heard of the
Wildlands Project? No. Was it possible that in the cozy new relations
between Interior and the Forest Service some secret scheme might
be evolving without his knowledge? Possible, not likely.
But then, Furnish, a former forest superintendent in Oregon, has
only been in his new job as deputy director for three months.
Thats less time than Range took repeatedly requesting an interview
Dombecks pseudo-scientific approach to forest management is always
easier to sell in pretty, prosperous cities like Portland, where,
driving back out, it was hard not to notice the building wall
billboard advertising the radical tree-spiking group that gave
birth to the idea of the Wildlands Project, Earth First!
Its defacto wilderness, said Bruce Vincent, who for 30 years
has worked with his family-owned timber harvesting outfit in Libby,
Mont. Only 10 years ago, he had 65 employees. Now, theres just
five members of his immediate family, and they struggle to earn
a living from contracts on private lands often 400 or 500 miles
Whats going on isnt forest management, he said. Its social
engineering. He, like others, plans to hang on despite federal
policies, knowing, as he says, that its a no brainer. With the
worldwide population still increasing, its not whether the forest
will be managed, its how. Reality is the ultimate dictator, and
I dont think people will like the reality we face now. Even
in the evening dimming light headed across State Highway 58, the
dark green hug of overgrowth forming the curtain of forest on
either side hints of what he means.
John Lane is just the sort of poster child for the cattle industry
that Joy Belsky of ONDA sneers at in promising to eliminate grazing
from the West. Lane and his co-leader in the Beaty Buttes Grazing
Association, Jeremiah OLeary, drove 50 and 60 miles into Lakeview
from their own ranches to meet me at the Indian Village restaurant.
Its a place that probably couldnt fit sufficient political correctness
to be built today with its Indian designs on the walls and booths
and its collection of arrowheads and artifacts proudly framed
and displayed over long years. Lane and OLeary are both in their
seventies, and Lane especially feels they have already beaten
the senior-scoffing Belsky in a mishandled earlier attempt to
eliminate grazing rights by claiming cattle are driving pronghorn
antelope to extinction. The Beaty Buttes won that one, but ONDA
has recently come up with a new surrogate in the supposedly threatened
sage grouseonce so commonly seen among grazing cattle that it
was easy pickings for hunters.
We meet them head on wherever we can, OLeary said, and they
dont always expect that. They dont do their homework. They think
John and I are just old men hanging on to what we have, but John
has two sons and I have two sons. Theyre all well-educated and
they came right back here from college. Theyre fighters, just
like I am, just like John.
The 10 or more ranchers who collectively formed the Beaty Buttes
association slipped one past The Nature Conservancy which had
its eye on the large holdings that were formerly included in a
single operation. Since then, though, its almost been like a
grudge match between the ranchers and the ONDA environmentalists,
who vow these days to go directly to President Clinton and demand
that he extend a wildlife refuge on Hart Mountain into a similar
refuge on the Sheldon range and across some 600,000 acres of grazing
areas in between that they so righteously resentnearly all the
public grazing land left in Lake County.
They work on us with all their donated money and outside people,
said John Lane, but we go to the counties, to the people who
live here, and we face them every step of the way. In the breakfast-clattering
Indian Village, talk with the two venerated local leaders is frequently
interrupted by old friends stopping by the table, swapping a little
late news or old tales on this weekend of the county fair. All
real politics are local perhaps, but few of the passing Lakeview
locals seem to understand how incidental they may be to a broader
federal plan reaching over more and more of Oregon and Nevada.
So far, they tell us that grazing rights would be grandfathered
in to any expansion of a Wilderness Study Area, Lane said skeptically.
I doubt we could trust them.
Lakeview used to be a town made from timber and cattle. All but
one small sawmill is gone now, and the biggest local employer
by far is the federal government through its offices of Forest
Service, BLM, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that headquarter
there in the hub of quiet combat over land with strategic implications
in national policy.
Beaty Buttes is not the same place as Hart Mountain or Steens.
It stands well above the flat playa of the Black Rock Desert.
There are hundreds of miles between them, thousands of square
miles in all, and yet in the scheme of things in Washington, they
may interlock in the same plan.
Outside Lakeview, the forest scrambles further up the mesa slopes,
giving way to juniper and clumps of aspen as the eastern high
desert takes hold. Its 30 miles or so to Plush, in its little
green valley at the base of Hart Mountain, and then another 75
miles of mostly rock road to French Glen, at the base of Steens.
In Plush, there is one small general store and bar that caters
mostly to hunters and warns in no-nonsense terms, We dont call
911. They have seen an unusual number of tourists in Plush on
this weekend, all asking directions to French Glen, the hard way.
The two men in camouflage caps at the bar overhear me suggest
its part of some ONDA gathering, and one of them mutters sarcastically,
Well, hunting season just got better.
The big bureaucrats and politicians dont go these routes. Helicopters
and small planes save them the trouble of steep and treacherous
roads like that cutting across Hart Mountain and its broad empty
mesa in lung-clogging clouds of dust. They, like Interior Secretary
Babbitt, see it from the superior sanctity of Jet Rangers and
Cessnas, and estimate the distance as not so far.
Babbitt has presented Governor Kitzhaber, along with everyone
else involved, with a virtual ultimatum to come up with a plan
for a National Conservation Area at Steens before October. Otherwise,
the secretary said, hell take some action himself to secure it
under the Antiquities Act, like what was done at Utahs Grand
Staircase Escalante. The Secretary of the Interior, even in the
plastic-faced bravado of Bruce Babbitt, does not actually have
that authority. By what is still law, only the president himself
can direct such arbitrary attention to an area. But in his helicopter,
high enough to take in the Black Rock, Beaty Buttes, Sheldon,
Steens, and Hart mountains in one great vista, Babbitt can play
political chess, casually acknowledging the interest of Senator
Bryan from Nevada in getting something done for the Black Rockalso
Im here because I believe theres a window of opportunity and
I intend to bring it to a conclusion on my watch, Babbitt told
environmentalists invited to meet with him in early August near
Steens. Since there was media present, the Secretary said, he
wouldnt elaborate on that, but he assigned the job to the regions
Resource Advisory Council (RAC), a group of supposedly representative
interests whose job it would be to present the Secretary with
a workable new plan for Steens by October.
Even Babbitt has acknowledged that the long established public-private
management of the unfenced range on Steens may be the best in
the West. Yet with characteristic intimidation, Babbitt warns
that change is coming to Steens anyway, and if people dont involve
themselves in that change, discussion will begin without them.
The inevitable discussion always starts with a national park,
the secretary said, hastening to add that Americans dont like
cows on their national parks.
As has happened so often before in the reinvented government
of the 90s, however, Babbitts attempts to force grass roots
credentials into formulated policy choked on the implications.
Why, asked RAC members from ranching, tourism, local government,
and even wildlife interests, did there need to be a new designation
at Steens? If it was already a model of public/private cooperation,
what would be accomplished by giving it a new national designation
that was certain to bring more people into the secret of this
Steens isnt even shown on most tourist maps. Its Babbitt who
has drawn attention to it, stepping in like an unwanted judge
stirring up a custody fight over a cherished child. In Bend, Ore.,
the RAC subcommittee on Steens agonizes over the mission forced
on them and orchestrated under the guidance of Forest Service
facilitators with their ubiquitous big sheets of paper and felt
Rancher Bob Skinner is troubled by the divisions on the issue
he senses among his neighbors on the RAC, yet when even RV-driving
tourism representative Len Shrewsbury joins him and a slim majority
of the eight-member committee in a straw vote for no new designations
at Steens, his hopes brighten. The RAC will at least not serve
Babbitt as a rubber stamp.
That night, the Forest Service has scheduled a period of public
input at the Bend Community College. The Sierra Club in Portland
has hired a tour bus loaded with their members for the three-hour
trip, but a nearly equal number of property owners and residents
around Steens have made a similar long drive from French Glen.
They seem to have arrived in distinct groups, signing in for their
chance to speak. The first half of the session is almost all short
statements from people who live there, pleading for no new government
presence at Steens. Visitors dont know it, but there are 239
landowners on Steens, 75 percent of land use is on private property,
points out Fred Otley. Can public ownership manage it as well
as the partnership and agreement that has been there this long?
But the second half of the session carries all the names and organizations
of the environmentaliststhe Sierra Club, the Oregon Natural Desert
Association, the Audubon Society. Surprisingly, some of them speak
in support of multiple use and continuing the cooperative effort,
but others with impassioned young voices cry for the purity
of eastern Oregon to be protectedfrom grazing or from any purpose
Bill Marlette, the executive director of ONDA, appears to have
calculated for his own statements to be among the last of the
night. Marlette, 44, seems to have a sense of himself as an emerging
celebrity in the green movement. He broods apart from his loyal
cohorts, conveying the mysterious image of smoldering brilliance
saved for just such occasions. The status quo is not an option,
he inputs to the committee at last. If you folks arent willing
to deal with grazing, you will have failed. You decide, or we
will, by coming into court.
Declaring himself and ONDA as major players against the RAC and
against landowners who he thinks should gradually be bought out,
Marlette says, Were ready to compromise. We want 50 percent
of Steens Mountain cow-free now, and we want some over-arching
designation to protect the rest of it. Thats up to you.
Bob Skinner, a big man not accustomed to threats, silently scowls.
He doesnt notice the equally piercing look at Marlette from the
Meeting again the next day, some on the subcommittee are still
convinced that Babbitt will act alone if they dont. People on
the mountain know what theyre doing, argues Shrewsbury. Changing
it to give protection in perpetuity is idiotic. Skinner sees
it even more clearly. Were trying to upend peoples lives here,
not just get rid of cows, he tells his fellow members.
The federal facilitators, however, remind the somber committee
that Secretary Babbitt will be back in Lakeview to meet with them
in October, and he expects something. Leaving well enough alone
will not do. The facilitators insist on a long committee session
listing each value on the mountain, and although that takes nearly
all day, the result is the samefour members oppose any new designation
on Steens, two want an NCA, and two others are still worried that
something should be presented to Babbitt. The consensus is that
Steens is working fine, just as it is.
Nevertheless, the professionally enthusiastic facilitator squeaks
a word from his felt tip on a fresh new sheet of paperDesignation.
So, says the facilitator, what shall we name it?
It was at that point that the sham of participation was nearly
shattered. Furious, Shrewsbury walked out of the meeting, only
to be coaxed back in by Skinner. Words like betrayal and fraud
were heard before the facilitator finally drew a heavy line through
his Designation heading. The sense of the RAC committee will
be that public/private management on Steens as it is makes more
sense than any sort of new designation. Babbitt, they all know,
will not be pleased.
October is near, the Interior Secretary wants his window of opportunity,
but his bluff has been called. Me, Ive still got Zephyrs dusty
bag of trash riding along on the long haul home. Maybe there is
no conspiracy. Maybe its just folks loving a mountain like Zephyr
does and not understanding that others feel the same way. Still,
watching the early golds of a new season appearing in the passing
trees, I am reminded of Joy Belskys arrogant remark. We wont
be dealing with old men forever, she said.
Well see, wont we, Bruce.
Tim Findley is a longtime print and broadcast journalist who has
been an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle
and Rolling Stone. He was special assistant to California Speaker
of the Assembly Willie Brown. Findley lives in Fallon, Nev.