Worth Celebrating: A Symbolic Fence Removed In Steens Mountain Wilderness

“It was the opposite of a ground-breaking ceremony. Instead, it was a ground-restoring,” said Ben Gordon, stewardship director for Oregon Natural Desert Association. On Saturday, August 26, more than a decade of conservation work culminated in the pulling of the final stake of barbed-wire fence in the 97,229-acre cow-free portion of the Steens Mountain Wilderness Area in southeastern Oregon. During a time where beloved national monuments are under review and the protection of public lands seems particularly threatened, the celebration of this restored wilderness was cause for celebration.

Barbed wire fence, found throughout public lands in Oregon, poses unnatural hazards for wildlife, and it disrupts connectivity, making it harder for species to move from one crucial piece of habitat to another. "One September, we were pulling barbed wire fence along a ridgeline. While we worked, a pair of pronghorns came up to the fence and turned around because they can't jump the fence,” explained Craig Terry of Hood River, who is in his early 70s and first volunteered on Steens in 2006. “The next day, after we’d removed that section, we saw the same pair cross through. Without our work, they wouldn't be able to move freely across the landscape."

ONDA volunteers have pulled more than 125 tons of the unnecessary barbed wire, all by hand. And the fence removal symbolizes something much larger—including many years of work to get to that moment. We chatted with the folks from ONDA to find out more about more about Steens—what that fence removal means, and how we can take action to see more progress like this.

Can you explain what Steens Mountain is like, and its general history?

Steens Mountain lies along the horizon of southeastern Oregon like a sleeping giant among a bed of sagebrush, perennial grasses and wildflowers. Although often mistaken for a chain of mountains, Steens is actually one contiguous monolith—the largest fault block mountain in North America, stretching some 50 miles and reaching a mile vertically, with summits that overlook the Alvord Desert, wide canyons and the Donner und Blitzen River. The mountain’s dark undulating slopes and stern ridgelines can be seen for miles, making Steens Mountain the high desert’s “crown jewel.”

The Oregon Natural Desert Association, and diverse stakeholders, put decades of effort into creating a lasting conservation plan which would also support ongoing land uses. In 2000, the Steens Act designated the first desert wilderness area in Oregon, providing permanent protection for this important region. As outlined in the Steens Act, the character and use of the lands on Steens Mountain includes “grazing, recreation, historic, and other uses that are sustainable,” “traditional access to cultural, gathering, religious, and archaeological sites,” and the conservation and protection of “geological, biological, wildlife, riparian, and scenic resources.” The Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area hosts over 100,000 visitors a year to hunt, fish, camp, bird watch, and so much more.

Why is a "livestock free" wilderness area special and important?

Historically, overgrazing of livestock wrought severe and lasting impacts on vast areas of the nation’s public lands, including Steens Mountain. Over time, as grazing regulations and management were modernized, these impacts have decreased. Nevertheless, livestock grazing can and often does result in impacts to our public lands and native ecosystems, especially in the arid high desert of eastern Oregon. Despite this history and the knowledge of the risks of livestock grazing in the desert, almost all areas of our public lands remain open to grazing. The Steens Act afforded an important opportunity to protect the ecosystem on the mountain and simultaneously create a living laboratory to better understand how areas free from grazing fare compared to similar places and ecosystems where grazing continues. The livestock-free portion of the Steens Wilderness is the only one of its kind in the country and continues to provide important ecological reference information and protect this unique part of the high desert. 

What kind of actions have led to this fence-less, livestock-free area?

It’s taken the work of many hands and strong backs to accomplish; 200 volunteers have provided more than 12,000 hours of service. Over the course of the 38 different multi-day trips into the Steens backcountry that ONDA has led, volunteers have removed more than 70 miles of fence from 104,000 acres of land. For reference, that’s 251,000 pounds of material or the weight of 10 school busses. But the numbers are just a small part of the story. Each one of those trips required volunteers to drive down rugged roads to remote trailheads then backpack for miles to reach the fence line slated for removal.

Setting up a group camp inevitably leads to telling stories around a fire. At first light, everyone is up—sipping coffee, packing the essentials for a full day of hiking and physical work, and getting ready to give their all to accomplish the objective of the trip. After three days dialing in to the rhythms of working and camping as a team, the group leaves the backcountry with sore muscles, calloused hands, a deep sense of accomplishment, and a new community of friends.

What kind of road blocks were difficult to overcome?

For starters, Steens is remote in every sense of the word. Just getting there from Bend, where many of our volunteers are based, takes more than five hours, so just getting to and from the work location takes the better part of a day each way. This leaves us with three days per trip to get as much work done as possible. One way to ensure that our volunteers have the juice required to put in big days of pulling fence is to lighten their load on the way into camp. We partner with the Bureau of Land Management who enlists a local horse-packing outfit to carry group gear into our basecamp so that volunteers can walk into camp with relative ease, preserving their energy for when it is needed most.

For people who are concerned about the future of our public lands, can you give one piece of advice that you've learned through this process?

Protecting and restoring public lands is a long-term effort that starts with a deep love a place. Whether at Steens Mountain, Crater Lake, Yosemite, or elsewhere on America’s public lands, achieving lasting conservation results requires inspiration, dedication and sheer will. Success comes from knowing these areas firsthand—by walking the ground, exploring the little-known places, talking to the people who live and work nearby and translating that love of place into action. 

Start now. Find your wild place, learn its ways, talk to others who love it and get to know it better than anyone else. Talk with your family and friends, talk to experts, figure out how to protect it and restore it.

For more information on protecting and restoring wild deserts, go to https://onda.org.