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Sunrise From the Summit of Steens Mountain

Balancing Act in Southeastern Oregon

Steens Mountain Wilderness Sign
Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Steens Mountain, Oregon

Steens Mountain rises high above the desert landscape of Southeastern Oregon and is arguably one of the wildest areas remaining in the state. The predominantly untamed landscape still exists in the modern era due in large part to its remote location; the mountain is at least 200 miles from any community with a population greater than 5,000 people. The local residents living in Harney County primarily work as cattle ranchers, including some that have traditionally used parts of Steens Mountain to graze livestock.

Steens Mountain Location in Oregon Map
Snow on Steens Mountain – Photo: Bureau of Land Management

In the 1990’s, environmentalists in Oregon began making a case for the permanent preservation and protection of Steens Mountain. Due to the mountain’s stunning scenery and its considerable diversity of plants and animals, many thought that Steens Mountain should be considered for preservation as a National Park or National Monument. However, local ranching interests with property adjacent to the mountain, or on the mountain itself, saw this as an attack on their source of income, as well as their way of life.

Glacier Carved Gorges – Steens Mountain Wilderness – Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Steens Mountain exists as a combination of public and private lands, including five notable local ranches with private holdings on or near the mountain. The public lands in the area are managed under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the United States Department of the Interior.

Steens Mountain Map – Bureau of Land Management

As President Clinton neared the end of his 2nd term in office, leaving a significant environmental legacy was something he considered meaningful and important. After Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit visited Southeastern Oregon in late 1999 and recommended Steens Mountain for designation as a National Monument, the controversy over the future of the area erupted between environmental groups and local ranching interests. Each side agreed that Steens Mountain was an extraordinary place. Not surprisingly however, the local ranchers believed that they should be allowed to continue a way of life that had been practiced in the area for more than 100 years.

Steens Mountain

Negotiations over the future of Steens Mountain began later that winter as the world celebrated the start of a new millennium. The politicians involved in the legislation that would later create the “Steens Mountain Wilderness”, quickly realized it would be impossible to fully accommodate the desires of both the environmentalists and the ranchers. The legislation that eventually followed was ultimately a compromise between the environmental and ranching stakeholders. The “Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act of 2000” was signed into law by President Clinton on October 30th, 2000.

Full Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act @ congress.gov

The act created the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management Area (CMPA), a space containing 428,156 acres of public and private lands. Section 2 of the act further designated 170,202 acres within the CMPA as the “Steens Mountain Wilderness”. The law has been controversial among environmental advocates ever since, because it made significant concessions to non-environmental interests. Many wilderness advocates also fear that these concessions will undermine future wilderness legislation, weakening protections in other areas.

Big Indian Canyon – Steens Mountain Wilderness

Roughly 40% of the CMPA is within a designated wilderness area, included as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The management of this particular area is administered cooperatively between the BLM and the Steens Mountain Advisory Council (SMAC). This has been highly controversial among wilderness advocates as the SMAC is made up of interests representing various groups including local ranchers, motorized recreationalists, and environmentalists.

The concern is that SMAC can potentially make management recommendations that oppose wilderness values. This is especially concerning when these recommendations apply to the 170,202 acres that have been designated as wilderness within the CMPA. The joint management of the CMPA, including the segment designated as protected wilderness, will continue to place the Steens Mountain ecosystem at risk. These developments run counter to the intent of the Wilderness Act of 1964, as it was committed to the permanent protection of lands designated as wilderness. The intended protections were never planned to allow special interest groups a voice in the management of our established wildernesses.

Steens Mountain Wilderness

While the concessions made in the legislation that created the Steens Mountain Wilderness have been troubling to those concerned with permanent wilderness preservation, one partially positive development was written into the act. A total of 98,589 acres included within the designated wilderness, were protected from cattle grazing, the first wilderness to completely prohibit this action. Unfortunately the act also stipulates that if needed, it is the responsibility of the BLM to build fences that would keep any wandering cattle from entering the no grazing area. This concession ultimately results in those ranchers whom graze in the region, not being held responsible for the whereabouts of their own cattle. The situation runs counter to the protections intended by the original Wilderness Act of 1964. The rancher’s who work on or near Steens Mountain, must be able to manage their own cattle and should be held accountable if they fail to do so. Although the inclusion of 98,589 cattle free acres in the wilderness was one step forward, the text of the law then made an enormous reversal, by providing such an extraordinary concession to the local ranches.

Kiger Gorge Overlook – Steens Mountain – BLM

The authors of the legislation that led to the Steens Mountain Wilderness were faced with a difficult problem. How can we protect Steens Mountain while respecting the concerns and private property rights of the local ranchers? That question resulted in a law that compromises wilderness values. The Wilderness Act intended to permanently preserve and protect areas where the land is still significantly more affected by nature, to the extent that humanity’s influence is essentially not obvious or easily noticed. The BLM manages Steens Mountain in joint cooperation with the SMAC. Granting input from special interests in the management of a wilderness area is probably not what Howard Zahniser intended when he wrote the text of the Wilderness Act. While the Wilderness Act itself also made concessions, none of them undermined the integrity of keeping a wilderness area untrammeled by humanity like the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act. Steens Mountain is a spectacular place and we must hope that no further “innovations” in the management of our wildernesses are conceded to those that oppose wilderness values.

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