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Oregon and Nevada seem
to be a showcase for the
radical Wildlands Project.
It’s a stretch to link lands
hundreds of miles apart into
one grand plan that nobody
will officially admit to...
but it works out on a map.

By Tim Findley

Bruce Babbitt has been focusing his energy on the Steens but he and environmental groups seem to want to link it all, including Hart Mountain the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, Beaty’s Butte and a huge part of the Black Rock Desert. (Map by John Bardwell.)

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, isn’t 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 ONDA’s 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 Zephyr’s whimsical energy. He didn’t 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 don’t see any trash at all!” And as I slowly turned around and pulled away, he reminded me, “Hey, don’t forget, a lot of that stuff’s recyclable.”

You can’t 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 there’s 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 he’ll 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 can’t take the disturbance of cattle,” ONDA’s 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 group’s 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 aren’t many mom and pop operations still hanging on. At some point soon, there won’t be any poster children left for the ranching industry.”

They weren’t exactly poster kids who met with U.S. Senator Richard Bryan (D-NV) that previous Wednesday in Lovelock, Nev. Led by the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association president John Falen, the couple of dozen ranchers who waited in the Community Center for Bryan came with concern that the senator’s 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 isn’t even a formal proposal yet, nothing’s 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 isn’t 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 Bryan’s 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. He’s 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 I’m here with you.”

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. It’s not the same state it was, not like when I was just starting out. ...Anyway, these NCA’s are tailor-written. There’s nothing to say grazing would be excluded.”

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 I’ve got is the coercion. If you don’t 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. It’s 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 they’d 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 it’s not us who is setting their agenda–or paying their hotel bills.”

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. It’s 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.

It’s imaginable already in the stands of dense National Forest that blur by endlessly on either side of 97. And there’s 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 she’ll manage the forest for you. But I don’t think anybody is going to like a million acre fire that can’t 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 mismanagement.”

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 director’s 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 wouldn’t mind making a “slight detour” to Missoula, Mont.

Not to blame the fiftyish Furnish, however. He’s 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, it’s “burn.”

He can’t 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.

Dombeck’s 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. It’s a wilderness plan.

“I know there’s that feeling out there, but I don’t 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, there’s not that need anymore.”

And, as Furnish points out, when you don’t 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 Service’s 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 you’ve 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. That’s less time than Range took repeatedly requesting an interview with Dombeck.

Dombeck’s 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!

“It’s 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, there’s just five members of his immediate family, and they struggle to earn a living from contracts on private lands often 400 or 500 miles away.

“What’s going on isn’t forest management,” he said. “It’s social engineering.” He, like others, plans to hang on despite federal policies, knowing, as he says, that it’s “a no brainer. With the worldwide population still increasing, it’s not whether the forest will be managed, it’s how. Reality is the ultimate dictator, and I don’t 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 O’Leary, drove 50 and 60 miles into Lakeview from their own ranches to meet me at the Indian Village restaurant. It’s a place that probably couldn’t 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 O’Leary 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 grouse–once so commonly seen among grazing cattle that it was easy pickings for hunters.

“We meet them head on wherever we can,” O’Leary said, “and they don’t always expect that. They don’t 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. They’re all well-educated and they came right back here from college. They’re 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, it’s 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 resent–nearly 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. It’s 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 don’t 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 it’s part of some ONDA gathering, and one of them mutters sarcastically, “Well, hunting season just got better.”

The big bureaucrats and politicians don’t 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, he’ll take some action himself to secure it under the Antiquities Act, like what was done at Utah’s 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 Rock–also by October.

“I’m here because I believe there’s 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 wouldn’t elaborate on that, but he assigned the job to the region’s 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 don’t 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 don’t like cows on their national parks.

As has happened so often before in the “reinvented” government of the ’90s, however, Babbitt’s 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 wondrous mountain?

Steens isn’t even shown on most tourist maps. It’s 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 pens.

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 don’t 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 environmentalists–the 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 protected–from grazing or from any purpose except wilderness.

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 aren’t 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, “We’re 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. That’s up to you.”

Bob Skinner, a big man not accustomed to threats, silently scowls. He doesn’t notice the equally piercing look at Marlette from the 70-year-old Shrewsbury.

Meeting again the next day, some on the subcommittee are still convinced that Babbitt will act alone if they don’t. “People on the mountain know what they’re doing,” argues Shrewsbury. “Changing it to give protection in perpetuity is idiotic.” Skinner sees it even more clearly. “We’re trying to upend people’s 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 same–four 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 paper–Designation. “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, I’ve still got Zephyr’s dusty bag of trash riding along on the long haul home. Maybe there is no conspiracy. Maybe it’s 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 Belsky’s arrogant remark. “We won’t be dealing with old men forever,” she said.

We’ll see, won’t 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.


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