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A Monumental Accord: Steens Mountain Cooperative Management Area

Steens Mountain is a spectacular place - and the four men who gathered at Roaring Springs Ranch in Harney County during the summer of 2000 would agree. But the men each had different ideas for the future of the mountain. Two hailed from environmental organizations, and two represented ranching interests. Brought together by U.S. Congressional staff, the men were attempting to reach a compromise - a solution that would protect both the Steens ecology and its ranching tradition. Clearly, the preservation of the mountain was a priority for each person. But the challenge lay in determining how to do just that.

Steens Mountain

Steens Mountain (Oregon State Archives)

As President Clinton's last term was drawing to a close, politics brought together a group of Oregonians with very different backgrounds. In 1999, President Clinton sought to leave an environmental legacy, and one way to do so was to create national monuments -- park-like protected areas that encompass landmarks with special national significance. That fall, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt visited Burns, Oregon, and proposed designating Steens Mountain, then a patchwork of public and private lands, as a national monument. However, this suggestion created an uproar in Burns, as citizens contemplated the changes this designation could bring to their land. Would the national monument title end the economic viability of ranching on Steens Mountain? Would it bring unwanted development as tourists flocked to the newly designated site? Would it change the character of the Steens? Hearing this outcry, Oregon governor John Kitzhaber, in conjunction with Oregon's congressional delegation, offered an alternative: Oregonians would write their own conservation plan.

The Case for Preservation

Environmentalists saw the Steens as a place where a wilderness or park designation could preserve its unique desert landscape. The mountain possesses spectacular scenery and a high diversity of plants and animals, and is culturally significant to the Paiute tribe. Bill Marlett, then the executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association explains: "There was a history of institutional recognition of the value of landscape and its wildlife. Many thought that Steens was of national park quality."

Steens Mountain is the northernmost peak in the Great Basin and Range - a nearly 10,000 foot high ridge rising above the southeastern Oregon sagebrush desert. The mountain is a massive block of basalt, uplifted and tilted into an asymmetric wedge. On its eastern side, the mountain drops precipitously down to the Alvord Desert, 5000 feet below. On its western side, the mountain rises so gradually that the ridgeline can easily be reached by car.

On the 20-mile drive to the ridgeline, visitors pass through a range of unique habitats created by the extreme range of elevations coupled with the desert climate. Sight-seers also view spectacular alpine valleys carved by Pleistocene glaciers that melted to form the headwaters of the Donner und Blitzen River. Designated as a Wild and Scenic River, it flows from the Steens into Malheur Lake in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The river is home to an endemic population of Great Basin redband trout, and the refuge is a major stopover for migratory birds in the Pacific flyway. The presence of so many natural treasures in the Steens Mountain area was a compelling reason for many people to preserve this unique landscape.

The Ranchers' Perspective

Ranchers, like the environmentalists, were passionate about the mountain. But in addition to its wild lands, they saw in the Steens a landscape that could support cattle ranching -- a way of life that has persisted, despite isolation and hardship, for more than a century. During congressional testimony in 2000, Stacy Davies, manager of Roaring Springs Ranch, the largest on the mountain, described this way of life: "Ranching is the one economic use that has persisted in this high desert region since the arrival of the white man. These ranches are economically and ecologically sustainable and have protected this resource."

A ranch in Harney County

A ranch in Harney County (Oregon State Archives)

For the 35 Steens Mountain ranchers who owned a collective 232,000 acres and 18,000 cattle, their biggest concern was that the national monument designation would eliminate grazing and they would be forced to sell their operations. The ranchers loved the land and thought that, with their local knowledge, they could better care for the mountain than federal employees setting regulations from thousands of miles away.

Tradition and culture also motivated the ranchers to protect their way of life. Some Steens landholders were descendents of original homesteaders who arrived on the mountain in 1862. In the harsh and isolating landscape, most attempts at settlement failed, and those who persevered showed an ingenuity and fortitude that is still celebrated, and exhibited, by their descendents. This sense of pride for ranching and family persisted throughout the generations of landowners, and motivated many Steens ranchers to challenge the national monument designation.

Other ranchers, however, felt that change might be a good thing. Fourth-generation rancher Fred Otley traded his prime grazing lands in the Kiger Gorge for lower-elevation lands during the negotiations. After his decision, he told the Oregonian, "money isn't everything -- it's a question of being able to sustain our family business for the grandkids."


Throughout the winter and spring of 2000, Oregon politicians labored to address the concerns of both ranchers and environmentalists, but failed to reach a compromise. In a final push, Lindsay Schrader, a staffer for Congressman Greg Walden, brought together four key negotiators - Stacy Davies, Fred Otley, Bill Marlett, and Andy Kerr, a consultant for the Wilderness Society. With input from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other local ranchers, they put forth a new plan. "It was not what any one of us wanted", Marlett recalls. "In that sense, it was a classic compromise." With some revisions, the plan gained the support of governor, and successfully moved through Congress. In October 2000, President Clinton signed the legislation into law.

The law created a unique conservation designation, the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area (CMPA), which was the first of its kind. As expressed in the act of the same name, BLM would continue as the federal land manager for the mountain's 425,550 acres of public land. The Bureau would receive management advice from the newly-created Steens Mountain Advisory Council, a citizen group representing diverse local interests. In addition, the act prohibited mineral and geothermal extraction on nearly a million acres and authorized a series of land trades that reorganized the checkerboard of public and private land on the Steens. The trades created a 170,084-acre wilderness area and allowed ranchers to consolidate their land holdings. More than half of the wilderness area was designated livestock-free, making the Steens the first federal wilderness area to be given such protection. The act also assigned three new Wild and Scenic Rivers, and set up a redband trout reserve to improve stream health and fish habitat.

In 2002, the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation, and Public Lands held an oversight hearing at the foot of the mountain in the town of Frenchglen. The testimony reflects continued ambivalence: speakers voiced pride that the CMPA was the first of its kind, embodying a unique management approach that attempted to address opposing views and give local interest groups an ability to influence federal management. But the hearing also revealed that the CMPA legislation did not necessarily end the conflict between ranchers and environmentalists the way some had hoped. What the act did, however, was provide a national example of a cooperative framework for managing a vast and exceptional natural resource.

Sources for Steens Mountain

Bureau of Land Management. Steens Mountain. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of the Interior. 2002.

Mark Highberger. Steens Country: An Explorer's Guide to Southeast Oregon. Portland, OR:Bear Creek Press; 1st edition 2003.

High Country News. Go Tell It on the Mountain. Paonia, CO: High Country News. 1999. Steens Mountain.

Authored by Maria Wright, Faculty Research Assistant, Institute for Natural Resources and Caitlin Bell, Science Writer, Oregon Explorer