Andy Kerr

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

Malheur Lake National Wlldlife Refuge Additions (Proposed)

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 129-131.

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Expansion would help wildlife, ranchers, local government, and federal taxpayers.

Location: Harney County, 20 miles southeast of Burns

Size: 159 square miles (101,079 acres); current refuge: 291 square miles (186,500 acres)

Terrain: Very flat or nearly so, save a lone butte

Elevation Range: approximately 4,100-4374 feet

Managing Agencies: Private, Burns District BLM, State of Oregon (present); Fish and Wildlife Service (proposed)

Recreation Map: Northwest and Northeast Quarters, North Half Burns District BLM

Malheur Lake, because it is so shallow and since precipitation varies dramatically from year to year, varies in size from a historic recorded (since 1903) minimum of 0 acres to a recorded maximum of 170,000 acres. Between 1825 and 1850, Malheur Lake likely dried up completely, as it did in 1934.

When it is high, Malheur Lake not only expands to include adjacent normally "dry" (actually much of it is wet) lands, it also completely swallows up both Mud Lake and Harney Lake. Harney Lake usually takes its fill from the Silver Creek and springs, while Malheur Lake suckles from the Donner and Blitzen and Silvies Rivers. Mud Lake is the connecting channel between the two. When the water rises, it all gets called Malheur Lake and is the largest lake in Oregon.

The problem is that about twenty-five ranches are in the lake. This is not a problem for the cows (and cowboys) when the lake is low. When the lake fills (it doesn't flood), it's a major problem not only for the landowners, but for the taxpayers as well. In the early 1980s, the lake rose dramatically. OR 205 had to be raised about 10 feet, and the higher lake level effectively finished off the Union Pacific railroad spur (it was on its way to abandonment anyway). Many miles of county road were inundated. The federal taxpayers got stuck providing both emergency flood and emergency drought (it didn't rain much the following summer) relief in the same year for the same ranchers.

Economically, the ranchland is worth $25 to $50 per acre. Because it is ranchland, it gets a big tax break, which is absorbed by other county taxpayers. Land- owners (make that lake owners) pay an average of 10 cents per acre per year. (Four duck hunters spend more in Harney County on a weekend than the average prop- erty taxes paid by a lakebottom ranch.) In 1983, most of the landowners wanted the federal government to buy them out, and the Fish and Wildlife Service supported the idea. As in those towns on the Mississippi River, it makes more sense to spend the periodic federal flood and drought relief payments on moving people to higher ground and/or other pursuits.

Unfortunately, the county government opposes any net increase in federal land within Harney County, and some local interests are proposing that a drain be built connecting the Malheur Lake system to the South Fork Malheur River or a multi-pond pumped-storage irrigation scheme, or pumping the water into Diamond Craters (none with their own money by the way).

Conservationists propose that the boundaries of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge be expanded to include the historic high lake level. Future federal disaster relief funds should be allocated to refuge land acquisition, instead of the periodic rebuilding of roads, barns, houses, and fences. On private property within the lake, owners should be covered by one more round of disaster relief. They could take the normal payoff, or be bought out at fair market value. If ranchers choose to stay, they would be "self-insured" from then on. Federal disaster funds should be used only for true disasters, especially those that cannot be foreseen. Anyone can foresee that ranching and living in a lake leads to trouble.

Of the proposed expansion, 15,908 acres is BLM land and 1,932 acres is state land.

Ecologically, the land is quite valuable. Over 320 species of birds and 58 mammal species have been observed on the adjacent refuge. Significant amounts of wetlands could be restored to productive fish and wildlife habitat. As the lake rises and falls, the wildlife would move with it as they did during presettlement times.

Fiscally, the considerable burden on the county funds would also be relieved.

Under current law, Harney County would receive more revenue from the federal revenue sharing program for refuge lands not being on the tax rolls than now collected from property taxes. A change in law is desirable, however. Presently the "payment in lieu of taxes" to counties to compensate them for the national wildlife refuge system lands within their borders comes from a special pot of money that is filled only from revenues from exploitive activities on refuge lands (oil, gas, grazing, logging, and so forth). Congress passed a new law in 1997 that is phasing out activities harmful to the purposes for which the refuge was established. Hopefully, this blood money will completely dry up; instead, Congress should continually appropriate an amount from the general treasury to fairly compensate the counties for refuge lands.

The rest of the existing refuge mostly includes the Blitzen River valley. Unfortunately, the river is channelized through much of its length on the refuge. According to the Oregon Biodiversity Project, "Restoration of a more naturally functioning river and floodplain would enhance the area's biodiversity values." [1] It would also likely be much cheaper as the refuge routinely spends large sums channelizing and repairing an extensive ditch system that suffers severe damage during most spring runoffs.

What To Do

No exploration is described, since most of the proposed expansion is private land and/or pasture. The existing Malheur Refuge has areas open to visitors in the Blitzen River valley. Seasonal and area closures are common, so check with refuge headquarters. A visit to headquarters is like a trip back to the 1930s.

1. Oregon Biodiversity Project. Oregon's Living Landscape. Portland, Ore.: Defenders of Wildlife, 1998, 132.