Andy Kerr

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

Sagebrush Sea 

To the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality.

Paul Shepard, Man in the Landscape

See also my Oregon Desert, Wilderness, Grazing, and Conservation Policy pages for related topics.

Call it the Oregon Desert, Great Basin Desert, sagebrush steppe, tree-free land, the Oregon Outback, the Intermountain West, the arid West, or just call it undescribable, it's a lot of country dominated by various species of sagebrush.


No Room for Energy Development on Public Lands argues that any kind of energy development—even renewables like wind and solar—are driving species such as desert tortoise, prairie chicken and sage grouse toward extinction. Wind towers should be limited to private land and solar panels to rooftops.

Sage Grouse: The Spotted Owl of the Desert is my Wallowa County Chieftain column on the topic.

"Viewing Sage Grouse"was excerpted from Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes will give you detailed instructions on how to safely and enjoyably visit the most viewed sage grouse lek in Oregon.

"Managing Western Juniper to Restore Sagebrush Steppe and Quaking Aspen Stands" co-authored by Mark Salvo and published by the Sagebrush Sea Campaign. There is a higher-resolution version for better printing.


The authoritative source on the conservation and restoration of the Sagebrush Sea is the Sagebrush Sea Campaign, a project of Wild Earth Guardians.

Oregon Natural Desert Association is the premier organization dedicated to the conservation of the Oregon Desert.


To the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality.

Paul Shepard, Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature.

One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeoning of the landscape is to be seen in the sage-brush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage and substitute grasslands. If ever an enterprise needed to be illuminated with a sense of the history and meaning of landscape, it is this. For here the natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of the forces that have created it. It is spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread.

The land of the sage is the land of the high western plains and the lower slopes of the mountains that rise above them, a land born of the great uplift of the Rocky Mountain system many millions of years ago. It is a place of harsh extreme of climate: of long winters when blizzards drive down the mountains and snow lies deep on the plains, of summers whose heat is relieved by only scanty rains, where drought biting deep into the soil, and drying winds stealing moisture from leaf and stem.

As the landscape evolved, there must have been a long period of trial and error in which plants attempted the colonization of this high and windswept land. One after another must have failed. At last one group of plants evolved which combined all the qualities needed to survive. The sage—low-growing and shrubby—could hold its place on the mountain slopes and on the plains, and within its small gray leaves it could hold moisture enough to defy the thieving winds. It was no accident, but rather the result of long ages of experimentation by nature, that the great plains of the West became the land of the sage.

Along with the plants, animal life, too, was evolving in harmony with the searching requirements of the land. In time there were two as perfectly adjusted to their habitat as the sage. One was a mammal, the fleet and graceful pronghorn antelope. The other was a bird, the sage grouse—the "cock of the plains" of Lewis and Clark.

The sage and the grouse seem made for each other. The original range of the bird coincided with the range of the sage, and the as the sagelands have been reduced, so the populations of grouse have dwindled. The sage is all things to these birds of the plains. The low sage of the foothill ranges shelters their nests and their young; the denser growths are loafing and roosting areas; at all times the sage provides the staple food of the grouse. Yet is a two-way relationship. The spectacular courtship displays of the cocks help loosen the soil beneath and around the sage, aiding invasion by grasses which grow in the shelter of sagebrush.

The antelope, too, have adjusted their lives to the sage. They are primarily animals of the plains, and in winter when the first snows come those that have summered in the mountains move down to the lower elevations. There the sage provides the food that tides them over the winter. Where all other plants have shed their leaves, the sage remains evergreen, the gray-green leaves—bitter, aromatic, rich in proteins, fats and needed minerals—clinging to the stems of the dense and shrubby plants. Though the snows pile up, the tops of the sage remain exposed, or can be reached by the sharp, pawing hoofs of the antelope. The grouse feed on them too, finding them on bare and windswept ledges or following the antelope to feed where they have scratched away the snow....

The bitter upland plains, the purple wastes of sage, the wild, swift antelope, and the grouse are then a natural system in perfect balance. Are? The verb must be changed—at least in those already vast and growing areas where man is attempting to improve on nature's way. In the name of progress the land management agencies have set about to satisfy the insatiable demands of the cattlemen for more grazing land. By this they mean grassland—grass without sage. So in a land which nature found suited to grass rowing mixed with and under the shelter of sage, it is now proposed to eliminate the sage and create an unbroken grassland. Few seem to have asked whether grasslands are a stable and desirable goal in this region. Certainly nature's own answer was otherwise. The annual precipitation in this land where the rains seldom fall is not enough to support good sod-forming grass; it favors rather the perennial bunch-grass that grows in the shelter of the sage....

The eventual effects of eliminating sage and seeding with grass are largely conjectural. Men of long experience with the ways of the land say that in this country there is better growth of grass between and under the sage than can possibly be had in pure stands, once the moisture-holding sage is gone.

But even if the program succeeds in its immediate objective, it is clear that the whole closely knit fabric of life has been ripped apart. The antelope and the grouse will disappear along with the sage. The deer will suffer, too, and the land will be poorer for the destruction of the wild things that belong to it.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)