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Millions of years ago, the earth’s crust was undergoing a severe face-lift in the region known today as southeast Oregon. As a result from the upheaval, the largest fault-block mountain in North America rose over a mile above the surrounding arid valley that once occupied a lake. During the last ice age, huge glaciers carved the half-mile deep gorges that are present today. Few people remain convinced that such a unique beauty of high elevation desert exists in Oregon.

Since the Ice Age glaciers receeded around 10,000 years ago, man began to settle and inhabit the land surrounding Steens Mountain. Ancient artifacts like sandals and tools were found in the early and mid part of the 20th century. Native Americans, such as the Paiute and Modoc tribes existed there as well depending on the big game, native grasses and anadromous fish species that once thrived in the cold mountain streams that drain the high elevation snow banks of Steens.

Little, in the way of aesthetics, has changed on the rugged shoulders of Steens Mountain. Wild herds of mustang and pronghorn antelope still thunder across the sage. Alpine flower gardens continue to drape the high cirques and the nighttime view from the summit still offers over a hundred miles of wildness and only a half dozen flickering lights from ranch homes.

The political setting may change in the months or even weeks ahead though. Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbit has assigned the somewhat difficult task of crafting a proposal to permanently protect Steens Mountain and the adjacent Alvord Desert to the Governor of Oregon. This proposal to manage the vast area as a park or monument has stirred the interests of those that have owned ranches and farms since the turn of the century. Environmentalists believe that grazing diminishes the native bunchgrass and sage for which the area is famous. Cattle ranchers oppose a complete ban on grazing because of the fact that it has been a way of life and still is. In order for both parties to be satisfied to some extent, a proposed Steens Mountain Landscape National Monument would encompass much of the high elevation glacially-carved gorges and aspen forest and meadow environments. However, other parties are proposing that it recieve the title of National Park. And some would prefer simply a large BLM wilderness area. All three designations would recieve slightly different management strategies, but the key factor is the protection issue. Despite all of the amazing scenery, wildlife and isolation, almost the entire million acres that encompass the proposed monument is currently unprotected and managed through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Four types of threats currently plague the future of Steens Mountain: livestock grazing, geothermal mining and development, private land ownership and off-road use. Livestock grazing probably leaves the most distracting impression as wide areas of sage and native grasses are usually mowed down to the ground and take a long time to recover. More specifically, riparian areas suffer the most as cattle use the steams to emit waste and eventually contaminate the entire fragile ecosystem. Geothermal reservoirs were detected near the Alvord Desert, which is at the steep eastern foot of Steens, and could still be mined unless protective action takes place. Private land owners have been approached by corporate America to possibly bargain for their scenic property and build resorts and attract a tourist crowd that the Steens would not be used to. Off-road vehicles churn up the sandy soil, leak oils and fuel into the ground and leave long lasting scars on the landscape.

These issues are bringing top decision-makers to what may be one of the biggest controversial park proposals in decades. Many major newspapers in the Northwest almost have an article every other week pertaining to the final decision revolving around Steens Mountain. It is just a matter of time before changes will take place in the Great Basin. It also may be Clinton’s last hurrah for being considered an “environmentally correct” president. In any event, Steens Mountain will most likely receive a new title.