The Top Twenty Twenty Threats to Ecological Integrity
Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 67-72.
People have always chased around deserts looking for pots of gold. Such people have missed seeing the only real gold the desert offers—an occasional rainbow, hundreds of fantastic sunsets, interesting and secretive animals, pungent aromas of desert shrubs, droplets of dew on a hairy leaf, and a thousand other delights. As with every generation, we are duty bound to preserve all these for desert lovers yet born.
Denzel and Nancy Ferguson, Oregon's Great Basin Country
Oh, my desert! How do humans threaten thee? Let me count the ways.
Below are the top twenty threats to the desert, arranged in descending order of proven or potential harm. Don't get fixated on the absolute order, though. The list changes daily because of relative threat, new information, and mood. The top and bottom ones don't change, but the ones in the middle move a lot.
1. Domestic Livestock
See "Domestic Livestock: Scourge of the West," earlier.
2. Human Population
It is not just the sprawling of Bend-Redmond-Prineville out into the Oregon Desert that is the problem; it is also the total number of Oregonians, Americans, and Earthlings. If human population is not stabilized at sustainable levels, then all bets are off. Any good cause is a lost cause unless population and consumption are addressed. To help save the desert, the rest of Oregon, and the planet, everyone should have fewer children and consume more efficiently.
3. Alien Species
The invasion of nonnative exotic plant species into native ecosystems is a serious problem. Exotic species often displace native species and are usually of little value to wildlife. Government land managers have significantly increased their talk about controlling exotic weeds, but unfortunately their walk has not increased commensurately.
BLM's color brochure entitled Noxious Weeds: A Growing Concern leaves one to believe that weeds are spread only by seed attached to tire treads and hiking socks or in pack-stock feces. Yes, one should not drive off-road anyway, but clean your tires if you do. Do pick your socks and burn or otherwise destroy seed before you go to the next area. Feed your pack stock on weed-free grain ninety-six hours before entering backcountry.
Government weed evangelists talk much about the impacts of exotic weeds but say almost nothing about the primary vector in their spread: livestock. Both through direct transport of seed in their guts and the trampling of ground crusts to bare dirt to make a seedbed for exotics, livestock are the biggest cause of weed spread. No serious progress in weed control will occur until livestock are controlled.
Land managers tend to reach for the herbicides first, which is easy if you ignore the effects of these highly dangerous poisons on other plant and wildlife species, not to mention humans.
Exotic plants are not the only problem. It has been easier for state fish and game management officials not to oppose the destruction of native fish and wildlife habitat, instead introducing new species into degraded ecosystems. Such has been the case with many exotic fish species now considered a problem to native species of fish. Wild species can lose out to exotics by direct competition or by hybridizing with exotics, thereby polluting the native gene pool.
One example is the chukar, an exotic game bird that was introduced by state game officers because they wanted a huntable species that thrived on another exotic species: cheatgrass. While the chukar has not been found to displace other wildlife directly, its presence masks the loss of native wildlife habitat that was caused by the invasion of cheatgrass, an introduced exotic plant. It is against the law to kill chukar out of season, but—at least from an ecological standpoint— it would be right.
Finally, let's not ignore another scourge of the wild desert: feral (please don't call them wild) horses and burros. While they may bring to mind a great western myth, while they may be cute when young and perhaps even majestic when older, they are nonetheless exotic intruders in the wild and an ecological nightmare. These horses were introduced from Europe and are not descendants of the horses native to the continent, which died out about 10,000 years ago, possibly extirpated by the first Americans. Herds can grow at 20 percent annually, and, with no predators except humans to control them, they take forage and space from indigenous wildlife. They destroy very sensitive habitats such as playa. The law should he changed to allow for their final round-up and adoption.
4. Off-Road Vehicles
If you've wondered why land management agencies are doing so much for off-road vehicle (ORV) enthusiasts—much more than they are doing for hikers—just heed the advice of that great conservationist known as Deep Throat: "Follow the money" ORV owners pay a registration fee (and get a dedicated portion of the gas tax), and most of the money goes to develop staging areas, trails, and related facilities.
Meanwhile, hiking boots are not registered, and you get what you pay for.
The problem with ORVs is not just that they offend many people's aesthetic sensibilities. Although the loss of tranquility is reason enough to restrict them, the noise harasses wildlife. Vegetation annihilation, soil compaction, and erosion are also products of off-road vehicles.
ORV enthusiasts often insist that they too are communing with nature, only they are doing so in a way that lets them get to areas they otherwise couldn't get to, and in a way that lets them see more. This is false economy. One cannot really enjoy and appreciate nature at 40 miles per hour.
Some also attack backpackers as rich elitist snobs. Some are elitist snobs to be sure, but the top-of-the-line collection of the finest backpacking gear is but a fraction of the cost of an average snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle.
Please remember that not all off-road enthusiasts are the problem. Ninety percent of all off-road-vehicle users give a bad name to the remaining 10 percent who follow the rules and try to minimize their impact.
5. Irrigation Impoundments and Withdrawals
No one should be allowed to dry up a stream. Minimum stream flows must be maintained. Enough water should be left in a stream so that it still supports fish, wildlife, recreation, and other purposes. Ninety percent of all water withdrawals are for cattle or for growing feed for cattle. Great damage has been done to the Snake, Owyhee, and Malheur Basins by the damming, ditching, diverting, diking, and destroying of native habitats.
Some desert areas have some very large and old, but very slow-growing, ponderosa pine trees. The timber industry, having gone through much of the big pine forests, seeks these as well. It is also turning to marginal timber species like western juniper. In the Rockies, the timber industry has discovered quaking aspen for chips for paper, hut hopefully hauling costs to mills will dissuade logging of aspen in the Oregon Desert.
Roads, both their construction and use, have serious environmental impacts. Soil erosion harms streams. Roads are vectors for humans who, often unintentionally, harass wildlife and for the dispersion of exotic weeds. If large enough, roads can serve as migratory barriers to small species. Many so-called roads were created by casual use, rather than intent or design. A road closure and rehabilitation program could help wildlife, improve water quality, and save taxpayer money
8. Altered Fire Regimes
Overzealous fire fighting, coupled with livestock grazing, has led to prevention of beneficial fires that clear out brush and juniper and favor grass (actually, such fires have just been delayed). Conversely, ecosystems in which native bunchgrasses have been replaced with the highly flammable cheatgrass are being overturned, creating a new unnatural equilibrium of low-diversity annual grasslands.
Consider the quaking aspen, a "keystone" species (many other species depend on it). Outside riparian areas, aspen stands contain the greatest numbers of wildlife and plant species in the desert. In many areas, the combination of livestock grazing and fire exclusion is a terminal combination. The lack of fire discourages aspen from sprouting, and the livestock browse off what does sprout.
9. Predator Killing
Each year, government "killers" slay about one hundred thousand coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and other kinds of the public's wildlife in the United States, all in the name of protecting livestock, much of which is on the public's land. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Damage Control Program has changed its name to Wildlife Services—a euphemism offensive enough to any thinking human, but more so to wildlife.
Besides rifles and traps, government killers use the M-44, a baited device that ejects a mixture of lethal sodium cyanide in the mouths of coyotes and other animals.
In Congress, efforts are increasing to cut the funding for this barbaric and unnecessary program. Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is a leader in that effort.
"Sure, coyotes eat sheep," said the late great Denzel Ferguson. "But the question is, do they get enough? Are their coats sleek? Do they have good conformation?"
10. Cyanide Heap Leach Mining
Less than a teaspoon of gold is yielded for every two dump trucks of earth that is dug up and piled and doused with cyanide to leach out gold (not to mention the eternal pits that remain). The resulting metal is in demand mostly for adornment and speculation.
Troublesome conservationists, costly (hut inadequate) regulations, and depressed gold prices have kept transnational mining companies out of Oregon so far, but they aren't far away. These fools for gold think nothing of chemically stripping it from a land more precious than any mineral. The face of Nevada to the south is becoming pocked with this industrial-strength Earth acne.
11. Geothermal Power
Other miners seek to mine the heat of the Earth to produce unneeded electricity by building a large industrial facility at the base of Steens Mountain near Borax Lake (and perhaps running powerlines to power nearby gold mines). The factory, its smell, and plume would blight the desert and likely dry up the nearby hot springs, killing off the Borax Lake chub, the most unique fish in the Oregon Desert.
12. Groundwater Depletion
Electricity and deep-water pumps allow humans not only to dry up open watercourses but also to deplete underground aquifers. Along the old Oregon Trail, in the proposed Boardman Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge, was a spring that saved many a settler. Today the spring is dry, and the water table is at least 300 feet below the spring that flowed strong only 150 years ago.
13. Other Mining
Whether recreational panning for gold, quarrying of gravel for roads, taking lava rock for fireplaces, or excavating litter for kitties, mining takes its toll on the desert. Federal law, not materially changed since 1872, gives away the public's minerals and leaves the public with the mess.
Humans should fear the coyote only for the irrational and inhumane ways it makes us behave.
Any fence, no matter the number of strands of barbed wire or the spacing of the wire, is an impediment to wildlife. Fences to keep livestock out of riparian areas help riparian areas, but at the expense of upland habitat (since cattle numbers are rarely reduced) and species sensitive to fences, such as pronghorn. Fences are pasturizing the West.
The large swath cut through juniper woodlands by powerline corridors can impede wildlife migration. The smaller lines can be hazardous to raptors whose last act is a short circuit.
With the end of the Cold War, Europeans became increasingly intolerant of close and low-level training flights. Much of this training has moved to the American West. Much of eastern Oregon is a military operations area and subject to low-level overflights by both jet bombers and fighters.
It is a memorable experience to be out in the middle of nowhere and then be buzzed by a jet fighter perhaps 50 feet above your head. If you have time to react, mooning is recommended. It is protected First Amendment speech, and it has been known to make a pilot waggle his wings.
As if conservationists didn't have enough already to worry about, we also need to advocate for the conservation of darkness. The feeling of vastness and humility that one receives in the middle of a flat desert as darkness falls and the stars shine on all horizons can be marred by inappropriate and unnecessary street and yard lights.
Bend-Redmond-Prineville is sprawling out into the desert with first homes, second (sometimes third) homes, and the related commercial and industrial development. In Oregon, urban growth boundaries are actually urban growth bungies.
All recreationists have impact, even those of us who mostly just walk the Oregon Desert. We should all strive to ensure that our impacts are the least possible (see "Leave No Trace" under "Getting Around and Back Well" in The Basics chapter). We also must guard against the industrial-strength recreation of huge resorts or off-road-vehicle havens, such as those in the Millican Valley.
Whether slaughtering road signs with guns or as grave robbers fancying themselves as amateur archaeologists, uncivilized yahoos do great harm to the desert.