SI Vault
An Iron Curtain across the West
Michael O'Hearn
November 06, 1961
Oregon just opened up a mountain, but a big part of the choice public land in the West is still closed to the outdoorsmen who own it
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November 06, 1961

An Iron Curtain Across The West

Oregon just opened up a mountain, but a big part of the choice public land in the West is still closed to the outdoorsmen who own it

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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.

One 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."

The landowners 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.

First, they 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.

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