Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Changes in the Desert Wind

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 1978. Changes in the Desert Wind. Seriatim. Vol. 2, No. 2. Spring. 66-67. 

By Andy Kerr

Many people envision Ecotopia as a land of vast forests, cool and green—but the high desert of southeastern Oregon should not be forgotten. It is much more than a barren wasteland with little value or attraction. Those who know the desert know it to be a diverse and beautiful land. Stretching from the pine forests of Lake County to the Snake River, and from the Blue Mountains to the Nevada line, the Oregon desert is more than sagebrush and rocks. It contains towering fault block formations like Steens and Hart Mountains, and large lakes such as Abert, Harney, Malheur and Summer. The few rivers are great like the Owyhee and Malheur.

And of course there are those wonders which make the desert extra special. Lava tube caves, alkali flats as level as the floor, unique forests miles from where they ought to be; antelope and bighorn sheep, bald eagles and falcons, ravens and rattlesnakes, deer and ducks. Numerous springs (both hot and cold) contain unique forms of plant and animal life which evolved from ancient times. They are found nowhere else in the world and in some cases only in a particular spring.

Most people don't think of wilderness when they think of the desert. Wilderness does not have to be forest or an icy mountain peak. Wilderness is wild undisturbed land. And the Oregon Desert has a lot of that.

But all is not well. The desert is facing many threats, some overt and many subtle. The Oregon Desert is changing before our very eyes.

The search that ever continues for that last gallon of gas has come to the desert. Many of the big oil companies are also looking for geothermal energy at such sensitive areas as the juncture of Alvord Desert and Steens Mountain, and around the Warner and Summer Lake valleys. A geothermal power plant with its accompanying powerlines, odors, noise, and people would be a tragedy.

Another uranium boom could cause another look to the desert for the hidden lode of nuclear fuel. And some consider the desert a perfect place to return the contaminated wastes. There are also claims for quartz, cinnabar, and other minerals.

Pothunters are finding and destroying archeological sites just to have an Indian artifact on their fireplace mantle. They are destroying our only link with the past and a people who lived when the land was much different than now. Once much of it was covered by large lakes. You can still see evidence of the ancient lakeshore in many places.

Pacific Power and Light Company wants to build a 500,000 volt powerline to transport electricity generated by strip-mined Rocky Mountain coal to markets on the West Coast. The line would open up much wild land, cause harassment to wildlife, and be an unsightly scar running across the Owyhee River, south of Steens Mountain, through the Warner Valley and on to Medford. The Bonneville Power Administration wants to build an 800,000-volt line to tie in the Columbia Region with the Southwestern U.S.

There are those who wish to build more dams on the Owyhee, the Silvies, and other rivers and streams, so they can have more water for more cows for the desert which is already overgrazed, or for huge irrigation projects to grow beets, wheat, or alfalfa. Speaking of domestic herds, we can't forget sheep and the so-called "wild" horses (actually feral) which are more destructive to vegetation than cows.

To get more grass for the cows, sagebrush and juniper trees are either sprayed (with 2,4-D, etc.) or chained (take two large bulldozers, one anchor chain, connect and drive) after which non-native grasses are planted.

Off-road vehicles, be it jeep or motorcycle, are causing scars upon the landscape. There are those who are attempting to turn the magnificent Alvord Desert into a speed test track for vehicles to break the land speed record and possibly even the sound barrier.

Other threats include roads and road realignments (US 395 at Abert Rim), subdivisions, and believe it or not, the timber industry is starting to look at the juniper for logging. The State of Oregon has dumped tens of thousands of barrels of toxic chemical wastes at Alkali Lake. Where will it end?

Of the approximately 20 million acres of the Oregon Desert, the vast majority is owned by the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Some small areas are under the control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the State of Oregon. The remainder is privately owned.

Two National Wildlife Refuges, a tiny national monument, and a State Scenic Waterway are the only legislatively protected areas on the desert. The rest, containing millions of acres of de facto wilderness, is for all practical purposes up for grabs. There are no wilderness areas, no national parks, no national recreation areas or the like.

Changes in the Wind

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 requires the BLM to inventory and study all of its roadless areas (parcels of land that are at least 5,000 acres in size and roadless) for inclusion in the National Wilderness preservation System. Citizens of Ecotopia must be vigilant to insure that the BLM does thorough and comprehensive studies. If we do not carefully monitor the Bureau, millions of acres of priceless wilderness heritage will be lost. This is enough said.