On the high
plateaus of the Steens Mountain country in southeast Oregon, the nights have
turned bitter cold. There are crustings of ice on the boulders and in the
backwaters of Wildhorse Creek, Fish Creek, the Big Blitzen and the other
streams that have cut their steep canyons into the red-brown table rock. For
almost two months now these canyons have been alive with mule deer—sleek, alert
creatures driven down by the summer-long drought to browse on the leaves and
grass along the water's edge. There are almost 14,000 head in the Steens herd,
one of the finest concentrations of deer anywhere in the U.S., and during the
Oregon deer season, one of the most thoroughly shot over.
From the time the
season opened September 30 until the echoes of the last volley died on October
22, an estimated 3,500 hunters came into the 455,040 acres of public hunting
land in the Steens area, winding up the two dirt roads that lead to the top of
the mountain. Comfort lovers rolled past in shiny sedans with house trailers in
tow. More rugged types came bouncing in by jeep, and the hardiest of all
trucked their pack-horses and burros only as far as the first ridges, there to
camp, track down trophies and pack them out by horseback.
Whatever way they
approached, they got good shooting—almost 60% of the hunters came out with deer
meat. But far more important, at least for game officials and for local
ranchers to whom the U.S. government long ago granted grazing rights in the
Steens country, was what these hunters did not bring back. There were no dead
calves stuffed into auto trunks, no sheep hidden under tarpaulins, no fences
cut, no residue of ill will between ranchers and hunters. By most standards,
the deer season at Steens Mountain was a resounding success. As such, it points
the way to the solution of a problem that plagues outdoorsmen all over the
country, but particularly those in the West.
The fact is that
much of the marvelously large and varied public land in the U.S., many million
acres of it, is barely accessible to the public that owns it. The Oregon Game
Commission made a special survey two years ago which showed that 112 private
holdings along the fringes or in narrow strips through public lands were
barring access to some 500,000 public acres in Oregon. Three years ago nearly
1,500,000 were so blocked in Colorado.
owner of a string ranch, a narrow but long piece of property adjoining a river,
extracts $50 for the right to cross a few hundred yards of his fief into the
public domain—a money-coining venture that is entirely legal. A landowner in
Oregon collects fees of $25 for the privilege of crossing his land to hunt in a
national forest. A rancher in the southeastern part of Oregon has been
fattening his income with a $25-per-year assessment for deer hunting on his
extensive holding. Some ranchers don't particularly profit from such
enterprises but insist on charges as a point of psychological privilege.
"If people want to trample over my grazing lands and scare my cattle,"
said one, "they ought at least to pay me something."
have a point. For one thing, they have the legal right to forbid any or all
trespass on their property. For another, there has been a long, dreary history
of stupidity and vandalism that would tax the patience of the most generous
landowner. Said one Idaho cattleman, "I don't see how a hunter could
mistake a Holstein bull for a buck deer, but he shot it right through the
head." A Colorado rancher complained, "This jerk cut my fence, drove
his jeep through, got stuck in the meadow and then had the guts to come and ask
me to pull him out." In the Steens area a small rancher heard shooting from
a field where he kept 200 heifers. He drove out to discover that a hunter had
pumped 23 rifle bullets into their water tank.
So the ranchers
fence their land and put up NO TRESPASSING signs. But they also have fenced and
posted adjoining federal lands, where they have grazing rights but no right to
deny access for any legitimate purpose, including hunting. They also have
played a little rough, on occasion, escorting sportsmen off their land at
shotgun point and, on one stretch of prime fishing land along the lower
Deschutes River in Oregon, dynamiting two old railroad tunnels that provided
the only access.
And they have
gotten away with it, too, partly because ranchers are a tightly organized bunch
with friends at court, and partly because, in the endless patchwork of land
ownership in the West, it is sometimes hard for a hunter to know exactly where
private land ends and federal land begins.
But powerful as
they are, the landowners are a comparatively small crowd, and it was inevitable
that once the hunters—of which 310,000 hold Oregon licenses—got together, they
would begin to shout down the landowners. The shout that got matters stirring
came early in 1959 when a group of Oregon ranchers tried to get full control of
a choice parcel of rangeland and close it off to public use. The Portland, Ore.
chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, led by Attorney L. C. Binford,
let out a howl of protest. And then, unlike a great many other well-meaning
outdoor groups that specialize in howls, they acted.
publicized the entire access problem, using Steens Mountain as Exhibit A. Here
was a big chunk of federal land, filled with fat deer and equally fat cattle
and sheep, bordered in some places by private lands but not so cut up and
restricted that every access question was too hopelessly complicated to settle.
In the summer the league took 150 state and federal officials and sportsmen
into the Steens area for a look around. The visitors were impressed. The late
Senator Richard L. Neuberger was so impressed he invoked a hearing on access
for October 9, 1959. More than 100 access problems were aired. As a result of
the hearing, the Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for the public
land in Steens and throughout much of the West, brought together the cattlemen,
lumber interests, woolgrowers, conservationists and sportsmen of three states
to air their grievances.