May 11, 2017
Opinions, Oregon

Protecting the high desert we love

By Jim Anderson | The Source Weekly | May 10, 2017 |

This old man is going on 80, and ever since I rolled into Oregon in ’51 on my beautiful 1947 Harley—and in later years literally soared over the sprawling sagebrush and rim rocks, sharing airspace with eagles—I’ve discovered more and more animals, plants and places and people to keep me busy helping to save.

I’ve had the honor and delight to spend hours, days and years sharing the high desert with my family and so many friends in the Fort Rock Country, and living with today’s people of the desert. In fact, I’m going to be “laid to rest” there…”

People, including Minnie Stits, who got a visit from what she called, “those little men from outer space,” and saved two dinosaurs from eggs she watched roll out a cliff and hatch in the middle of the road. She gave the babies to me when I presented one of my annual talks at the Grange.

Then there’s Sam Morehouse, an old Fort Rock buckaroo who knew an owl can turn its head only 270 degrees, not 360. But he stopped me one day at the Fort Rock Store and said, “Hey Jimmy, I seen one of them little cuckoo owls (Burrowing Owl) the other day perched on an old fence post up at Reub’s place.

“I rode up on my horse and circled the post and the owl turned his head all the way around. (He stopped to grin at me). So I turned my horse and went around him the other way, and he turned his head all the way around. You know what happened next?” he asked.

I said, “Sure, the owl’s head fell off.”

“Nope,” he said, “M’ horse got dizzy and fell down.”

The eagle research my wife, Sue, and I are currently doing, helping to conduct a survey on the number of golden eagles breeding in the wild places of Oregon, has expanded my love for the land. We even spotted a golden eagle that came down from Alaska to take in the Great Sandy Desert (and to have a taste of our black-tailed jackrabbits.) What a place is the Oregon desert!

In that light, over the last 30 years a diverse group of people, including teachers, doctors, students, naturalists and retirees, put their heads together to find ways to protect their shared love of Oregon’s deserts. They were driven by their conviction that the government’s current inventory of wild desert lands and the total destruction of millions of acres converted from sagebrush to grasslands for cattle grazing had destroyed a huge chunk of Oregon they knew and loved.

Sure enough, when they banded together to take up their own inventory of Oregon’s wild places, it was confirmed that there are nearly 8 million acres of wilderness-quality land in Eastern Oregon still left. They quickly realized that without a group of dedicated people to protect, defend and restore these wild desert lands, they could be lost forever. From this small group of desert-lovers, The Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) was born.

The recent invasion by the Bundy clan and their use-it-or-lose-it pals served as a wake-up call that there are a lot of people looking at our sagebrush seas for its financial values.

To that extent, in 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior approved a plan to allow the construction of dozens of wind turbines and a high-capacity power transmission line on Steens Mountain. Just like the approval of the destruction of millions of acres of sagebrush to create grazing lands, such a scheme would have destroyed nearby wintering habitat for the imperiled Greater sage-grouse, and severed a unique habitat corridor essential to the survival of the bird’s neighboring populations.

To fight that scheme, ONDA, in partnership with the Audubon Society of Portland and other lovers of the land, have worked to challenge the wind farm plan. While wind turbines certainly hold promise for our energy future, this is simply the wrong place, in my opinion.

Millions of dead birds, including hundreds of Golden Eagles and over 50,000 dead bats could testify to the need to give a great deal of thought to the placement of wind farms. A recent federal court ruling found that the Bureau of Land Management didn’t adequately establish a baseline of local sage-grouse populations. This lack of reliable data led to the potentially flawed decision-making and a flawed public process, which would have resulted in the degradation of bird and bat populations.

Portland Audubon and ONDA members, along with Brent Fenty, executive director of ONDA, were key players in Congress’s passage of the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act of 2000, which created Oregon’s very first desert wilderness area.

Members of ONDA and Audubon provided steadfast support over the years since this project came to the fore and have made protecting the Steens, the jewel of the high desert, possible. It’s going to take a lot of people who care about the ecosystems of Oregon’s Outback to make sure those coming after us will have the desert lands to love and protect.

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