Walking on a Knife’s Edge

Caleb Diehl
John O'Keeffe on his ranch in Adel, Oregon

The trail that cuts through the Wild West of rural land-use politics in Oregon’s high desert. 

Share this article!

Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva crested a canyon rim and faced an endless expanse of sagebrush. He was hours from any sort of town, after spending days swimming through ice water in Louse Canyon, along a tributary of the Owyhee River in the remote reaches of Southeastern Oregon. He eyed two riders on horseback angling toward him.

“My impressions of the area were from the Malheur-takeover thing. It was really rural and I wasn’t sure what I’d encounter,” says Sylva, a nomadic brand ambassador for outdoor-gear businesses. “Suddenly, I’m walking across this empty expanse and there’s this cowboy coming toward me.”

The riders, a cattle rancher and his son, asked Sylva what he was doing there. Sylva had grown used to puzzled looks from the denizens of the isolated desert, but this time it felt confrontational. Yet by the end of the conversation, he says his views on rural Oregon changed.

Sylva is one of 26 long-distance hikers to finish the 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail. It’s not a hiking trail in the traditional sense. It’s a big conceptual “W” that the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit dedicated to high desert conservation, scribbled on a tapestry of public lands throughout Lake, Harney and Malheur counties. Unmarked sections require extensive route finding. Stretches of up to 40 miles are waterless.

The trail’s visitation numbers are small, but its true potential is carving a middle path through a longstanding legal feud between ranchers and environmental groups. It’s emblematic of a decades-long public lands debate in the American West, a struggle that has encompassed national publicity campaigns, intractable legal fights, armed takeovers.

As it traverses miles of stunning desert, the trail also explores the philosophy, biology, politics and economics that have made Eastern Oregon a hotbed for natural-resource conflicts. It invites conversation about the urban-rural divide, about land-use policy, about the relative values of traditional agrarian industries and the new-age economy of recreation tourism.    

The conflicts in Eastern Oregon run so deep that ONDA, the biggest player in the environmental camp, and rural politicians and ranchers find it difficult to even sit at the same table. But lately they’ve been talking, or at least thinking about it. And the trail has something to do with it. “The more we talk, the more [the ranchers] share why they love the desert,” says Renee Patrick, ONDA’s Oregon Desert Trail coordinator. “When we get out there on the land, we find we have more in common.”

The route spotlights the natural beauty of public lands in counties where a chunk of the populace thinks the government shouldn’t own land at all. On January 2, 2016, armed militants occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County. Rancher Ammon Bundy led the takeover to protest the conviction of the Hammond brothers for burning 139 acres of public land in 2001 near Steens Mountain. One occupier was shot and killed, and a dozen others pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct federal officers, firearms violations, theft and depredation of federal property.

Jesse Laird, a rancher in the Warner Valley of Lake County, agrees with Bundy’s message but not his methods. “I felt like the way they went about it was wrong,” he says as he drives his black Suburban toward the looming monolith of Hart Mountain. “They should have gone on a speaking tour.”

Laird turns and points south to a cluster of dun-colored hills. The Oregon Desert Trail drops into the Warner Valley from there, he says. It runs along a paved road, then assails the escarpment of Hart Mountain, entering a national wildlife refuge.

IMG 4409Cows graze in the Plush valley. The Oregon Desert Trail drops in from the hills in the background. Photo: Caleb Diehl

Laird is not shy about his views regarding the Oregon Natural Desert Association and its desert trail. He encourages people to experience the wilderness, he says. His wife, after all, is a professional wildlife photographer. But he’s concerned about the association’s proposal to have the trail designated as a national recreation trail. “I’m scared of designations,” he says. “Special designations always cause special problems.”

In the midst of a flurry of conservationist legislation, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration elevated the status of hiking with the National Trails System Act in 1968. In a speech several years prior, the Democrat paid tribute to “the forgotten outdoorsmen of today,” which he defined as “those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback or bicycle.” The resulting legislation created National Scenic Trails, mammoth routes of more than 100 miles that pass “nationally significant scenic, historic, natural or cultural landmarks.”

Debuted in 2013, the exceedingly difficult Oregon Desert Trail has attracted few takers compared with existing National Scenic Trails. According to an informal survey conducted by the Pacific Crest Trail Association, 912 hikers this year have completed the now famous route linking the Mexican and Canadian borders in 2018. Ten people this year have finished the Oregon Desert Trail. 

IMG 2365The view from an early section of the trail in the Badlands Wilderness. Photo: Caleb Diehl

Despite the small number of completions, tourism agencies and the outdoor industry are funding Oregon’s longest thru-hike. The state tourism agency Travel Oregon earmarked the route as one of seven projects that will benefit from its forever fund. Hotels, restaurants and other tourist-facing business donate a portion of their proceeds to the fund. Projects must improve the visitor experience, restore the landscape and provide volunteer opportunities for Oregonians. Last year each of the grantees received around $6,000, a destination specialist with the agency says, and a smaller figure is expected this time around.

Linea Gagliano, a spokesperson for Travel Oregon, says the forever fund money will go toward public meetings and other initiatives to address ranchers’ concerns. “Knowing there was controversy around it, the funds are going to community engagement,” she says. “So it’s something that will enhance communities and not something people feel they just can’t get behind.”

Big outdoor-gear brands have lent support to the trail. The Bend REI store gave grants totaling more than $17,500 for trail maintence. Sawyer Products, an outdoor-gear manufacturer, chipped in around $1,000, and Cnoc Outdoors $2,500. MSR, one of the biggest names in the outdoor industry, promoted the trail on its Summit Post blog.

The unconventional route has also attracted travel write-ups in national publications including The Washington Post and The New York Times. In 2014 The Oregonian reported that the Oregon Natural Desert Association petitioned the U.S. Department of the Interior to study the trail as a possible addition to the National Recreation Trails system.

Seeking to represent ranchers, who are powerful players in the rural economy, the Lake County government petitioned the Oregon Natural Desert Association in January 2014 to halt part of the designation process. They feared that a proposal to connect part of the desert trail to the Fremont National Recreation Trail marked an early step in scenic trail designation. Malheur County commissioners sent a similar letter.

Laird and other ranchers in Lake County don’t have a problem with the trail as is, but they fear designation could pave the way for scenic buffers of up to a quarter-mile on each side. In those buffer zones, agencies could ban motorized use and grazing. Along the Pacific Crest Trail, land trusts have succeeded in converting private land to public to make buffers that preserve a natural experience and allow easier access.

IMG 4372Cattle graze with Hart Mountain in the background. Photo: Caleb Diehl

There’s a yawning gap between what rural communities think the Oregon Natural Desert Association is doing with the trail, and what ONDA says they’re doing. Lake County commissioners Bradley Winters and Dan Shoun say ONDA and the Bureau of Land Management have ignored their concerns about designation. “They pretty much couldn’t answer any of our questions about the use, and future use,” Shoun says. The last time Winters sat down in person with an ONDA representative was several years ago.

Three sections of the route—in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, the Pueblo Mountains and Steens Mountain—have received National Recreation Trail designations, but Patrick says ONDA is no longer actively pursuing designation for the rest of the route. “Nothing is off the table,” Patrick says, “but we’re trying to think through this thoughtfully.”

It wasn’t the only time communication broke down in the design of the trail. Alice Trindle, regional manager for the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association in Baker City, barely averted a publicity crisis. She killed an article about the new trail out of fear of offending ranchers.

“There were things [in the article] that really invited the visitor along the trail to go under barbed-wire fences and through gates,” Trindle says. “It didn’t have the respect for those traditional land managers, the ranchers.”

A rancher and owner of a horsemanship business, Trindle is deeply in touch with the region’s traditional industries. While tourism is growing, agriculture and ranching still sustain a large slice of Eastern Oregon’s economy. According to the state employment department, crop and animal production supplied 7.5% of private-sector employment and 7.1% of private-sector wages in 2017. A total $1.7 billion of agricultural products were sold in Eastern Oregon in 2012, the most recent year for which data from the census of agriculture is available. Livestock sales alone generated $762 million.  

“There’s a lot of distrust for the big-city environmentalists,” Batty says. “But there are a lot of people in the business community learning to see the value of tourism and willing to overlook the political aspects of it.”
— Thomas Batty

Tourism revenue in Eastern Oregon, though small by comparison, climbed steadily each year, from $316 million in 2010 to $383 million in 2017, according to Travel Oregon figures. About 900 jobs directly related to tourism were added in that time. Gagliano says the past few years in particular have seen a significant jump. There are also secondary effects that ripple through the economy.

Although posters promoting the Oregon Desert Trail hang everywhere from the historic saloon in Paisley to the Summer Lake Hot Springs resort, Lake County businesses have yet to realize gains from the project. Sylva, an experienced thru-hiker, says he can’t see annual Desert Trail thru-hikers ever exceeding 20.

Tourism in Lake County is still largely the domain of the rodeo and a trickle of agri-tourists. Many ranchers don’t know or care that the nascent Desert Trail exists. “They make it up as some big deal,” says John O’Keeffe, a rancher in Adel, a few miles down the road from Laird. “If somebody wants to go out and walk, they can walk there now. You don’t have to make a big effort to make it a trail.”

Thomas Batty, who owns Tall Town Bike and Camp, one of the few outdoor stores in Lakeview, says he’s stocked a bit more fuel for ODT hikers, but otherwise the trail hasn’t made much impact on his business. He thinks that could change, however, as the recreation-tourism sector gains steam. Lakeview is seeing increased visitation from the Timber Trail, another relatively new long-distance route focused on mountain bikers, and the Desert Trail could follow suit.

“This is a pretty conservative area. There’s a lot of distrust for the big-city environmentalists,” Batty says. “But there’s a lot of people in the business community learning to see the value of tourism and willing to overlook the political aspects of it.”

IMG 2288
Summer Lake Hot Springs, a stop for some ODT hikers.
Photo: Caleb Diehl

Patrick says most of the tourism boost comes not from thru-hikers but from those who tackle small sections. The immense challenge of the trail plays to the aspirations of the weekend warrior. “The 750-mile ideal is really compelling,” Patrick says. “It’s a reason to go back.” She estimates that each year around 250 people hike segments.

“They’ll buy lunch, dinner, probably spend the night, fill their gas tank while they’re out there,” Gagliano says. “It’s bringing in much-needed economic numbers.”

Duane Graham, owner of the Summer Lake Hot Springs resort, shuttles in a handful of grateful hikers each year from an ODT trail junction 6 miles down the road. In a county where one new job is the equivalent of 520 in Multnomah County, and a group of five people makes a town, no visitor is insignificant.  

“We probably will never have the numbers the [Pacific Crest Trail] has,” Patrick says, “but it’s a way to highlight the desert that works with the landscape.”

 Given the air of general confusion, red-faced speculation or flat-out indifference in Lake County for the nascent trail, it would have been difficult to expect good results when Patrick ambled into the Warner Valley and ran into Laird at his ranch.

“Oh,” he said, “you’re She-ra.” Patrick was shocked that this rancher knew her “trail name” — a moniker, like “Dirtmonger,” that thru-hikers adopt during their journey. Laird explained that he had been following her blog and the trail’s development, and that he was concerned about possible buffers. Patrick expressed gratitude for the water holes developed by ranchers. Without them, she said, the Desert Trail hikers would go thirsty.

“I felt she was being very transparent and very honest,” Laird says. “I don’t feel like she is — it feels horrible to say — like the other ones there [at ONDA]. A lot of the other ones are out to get us.”

Part of the entrenched attitude of the ranchers comes from their long-standing relationship with the land. In 1867, Laird’s great-great-grandfather arrived in the Warner Valley with the U.S. Army. The Lairds carted in juniper posts on wagons to the Warner wetlands, setting up fencing and water holes for cattle. The early homesteaders fought off sporadic attacks from the Paiute Tribe as they migrated from Reno to Burns. Family folklore has it that one season, the Lairds housed an elderly woman whom the tribe had abandoned. Though she was blind, she always knew when the tribes were attacking. The only property the Lairds lost was one white horse.

Not long after, in the early 1900s, the O’Keeffe family arrived from County Cork, Ireland. They raised sheep but converted to cattle in the 1960s because of labor issues. John O’Keeffe took over the operation from his father in the 1980s after earning an agricultural economics degree from Oregon State University.

O’Keeffe has lived nearly his entire life in Adel, Oregon, 30 miles east of Lakeview. The Adel store, the only store in the unincorporated town, springs straight out of a Western. A group of ranchers in leather chaps and cowboy hats occupies the center. O’Keeffe, a 56-year-old, weather-beaten rancher, wears a white cattleman hat and a grey knit sweater. Laconic and even-tempered, he gives off an air of wisdom, the product of a lifetime of education and experience.

IMG 4374
John O’Keefe, a rancher in Adel.
Photo: Caleb Diehl

On an afternoon in early November, O’Keeffe’s pickup reeks of smoke. He spent the morning burning the grass around his ranch buildings with drip torches. The burning creates a buffer that starves wildfires of fuel. O’Keeffe is chief of the local firefighting association, a volunteer group that tackles small blazes before they turn into “project fires.” The nearest actual fire department is a 40-minute drive away in Lakeview.

Apart from fire, in any given year O’Keeffe battles droughts, floods, blizzards, coyotes and disease. In winter he drives around all night picking up freezing calves and warming them in a heat box. While ensuring the survival of his herd, he revitalizes the land; he rotates grazing areas, for example, to give native bunchgrasses a chance to store root reserves.

Relatively recently, the environmental movement arrived with new ideas about preserving biodiversity. The 1964 Wilderness Act directed the Secretary of the Interior to review every roadless area within National Park and Forest land every 10 years for a special class of protection. The act famously defined wilderness as land “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The legislation banned motor vehicles and harvesting natural resources to maintain an intriguing but profoundly unscientific standard: “primeval character.”

In fact, many varieties of man, from Native Americans to ranchers, have come and gone from land thereafter protected as wilderness. Ranchers say their proactive management strategies, from rotational grazing to prescriptive burning, helped prevent fires and maintain rangeland health.

IMG 4365John O’keefe checks on a water source near his range land. Photo: Caleb Diehl

“I think it’s a fundamental difference in the viewpoint,” O’Keeffe says. “We’ve been grazing here for over 100 years, and it’s still in good condition. We’ve learned a lot about range management over the years and how to graze so that this is sustainable.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, some environmentalists, uniting under the cry “Cattle free by ’93,” argued that sustainable grazing was an oxymoron. In 1987 a Bend resident took out a classified ad urging fellow environmentalists to come by Thursday night if they were interested in protecting public land in the high desert. Each member at that first meeting donated $5, and they dubbed themselves the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

The nonprofit dedicated itself to preserving biodiversity in the fragile high desert. In 1991 it pioneered a method of citizen-led wilderness inventories later adopted by the Bureau of Land Management. In 1994 it convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove livestock from Hart Mountain, a highlight of the Desert Trail near the Laird ranch, to protect pronghorn antelope and sage grouse. Perhaps most significantly, in 2000 the nonprofit led the effort to establish the first wilderness area in Eastern Oregon, Steens Mountain.

The organization quickly earned the ire of local ranchers. Now, depending on whom you talk to, ONDA is a dirty word. “Most of the ranchers despise them,” says John Ross, owner of the Frenchglen Hotel, a midway stop along the Desert Trail. “They don’t like them ’cause they send environmental things through the federal government and figure out other ways to make it tough on them.”

IMG 4389Warner wetlands to the left, with Hart Mountain on the right. Photo: Caleb Diehl

In 1994, the same year ONDA protected Hart Mountain, Laird’s family lost access to greener late season feed on some 25,000 acres on the Warner wetlands. Laird says invasive Canada thistle proliferated when his cattle were barred from grazing. For another eight years, from 2005 to 2013, the Laird family chose to intervene in a lawsuit filed by ONDA against the Bureau of Land Management over grazing on Big Juniper Mountain. In the effort to preserve their grazing allotments, Laird says, the family quite literally bet the ranch. 

O’Keefe remains bitter about the results of a recent case in which ONDA contested the Bureau of Land Management’s inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics. The organization argued for protecting areas with existing roads and water holes, areas O’keefe doesn’t consider wilderness. He says, “they flat out didn’t take in the whole picture.” The negotiations are ongoing.

Actions meant to safeguard the environment, ranchers say, ended up hurting it. After ONDA’s concerns prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove cattle from Hart Mountain, Laird says, coyotes preyed on deer instead. Cougars came down from the mountains into the Plush valley. “It is an area of critical environmental concern because the BLM bought it,” he says.

The chance meeting between Laird and Patrick laid a small plank in a bridge that needs to span the chasm between environmentalists and ranchers. Patrick was impressed that Laird followed her blog, showed commitment to ranching sustainably and took time after they met to attend a presentation that she gave in Lakeview. By the end of their conversations, she said, “I felt we were able to agree on the beauty of this land.”

IMG 4393The Warner Wetlands. Photo: Caleb Diehl

The Oregon Desert Trail begins with little flourish or fanfare. A small wooden sign for the Tumulus Trail, hidden a mile down a rough four-wheel-drive road, marks the official start. The route enters the Oregon Badlands Wilderness Area, one of the first ONDA campaigned to protect. In the early 2000s, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and a group representing ATV users fought the designation, but the environmental group won. ONDA offered to buy grazing permits at an estimated cost of $100,000, winning over some ranchers. In 2009 Congress designated 29,180 acres as wilderness.

I ran into a local duck hunter near the start of the trail. He said his family owned a ranch in nearby Alfalfa, and he spent nearly 40 years hiking the Badlands with no map or compass. Now, he says, he hardly goes there anymore. There are too many people.

I couldn’t agree, as I didn’t find any more people on a 20-mile loop in the Badlands. The first seven miles of the Desert Trail offered a small sampling of its difficulties. I carried eight pounds of water uphill through sand. The route meandered through scant double-track, almost as if it was designed to lose hikers in a twisted maze of basalt and juniper. I navigated using a map and compass, and REI’s Hiking Project iPhone app, but was still fooled once by a deceptive side trail.  

IMG 2361
Flatiron Rock, an early stop on the ODT.
Photo: Caleb Diehl

For those hiking longer segments of trail, getting lost and running out of water is a serious possibility — so serious, in fact, that ONDA’s Desert Trail resources run red with legal disclaimers. Patrick notes there haven’t been any cases yet of missing hikers, and she’s been meeting with rural responders. But those words of caution are not enough to appease ranchers and politicians whose rural counties foot the bill for finding lost hikers from cities. “If they get lost,” says Elias Eiguren, a fourth-generation rancher in Arock, north of Rome in Malheur County, “it’s hard to find them and hard to get to them.”

The land exhibits the stunning characteristics of congressionally protected wilderness. Western juniper trees grow much larger than usual. Basalt tumuli, remnants of 80,000-year-old lava flows from a shield volcano, rise up in cracked and tortured sculptures. Mule deer bound through the woods. Everywhere there is solitude and silence.

Patrick says a key function of the Desert Trail is educating hikers about public land like the Badlands. “We need these public lands in order to have long-distance routes,” she says. The route runs almost entirely on public land, and its guidebook describes in detail the eight types hikers will encounter. There are several precursors to wilderness designation, including lands with wilderness characteristics, wilderness study areas and citizen-proposed wilderness. Areas of Critical Environmental Concern also receive special protections to preserve wildlife and plant habitat.

IMG 2398Camping in the Badlands Wilderness. Photo: Caleb Diehl

Environmentalists say all these designations are necessary to protect land as it progresses through the lengthy legislative process. Ranchers see needless bureaucracy. Both Laird and O’Keeffe feel crushed beneath layers of wilderness designations.

The dispute can be described as a tug-of-war between two philosophies. The debate dates to the turn of the 20th century, when naturalist John Muir and forester Gifford Pinchot butted heads over their visions for a public-lands system. Some environmentalists, and the authors of the Wilderness Act, sought Muir’s approach of preservation, returning the land to an untouched state. Of course, that prompts a question about what “untrammeled wilderness” means on a planet that is evolving every second. Loggers and ranchers argued instead that conservation — proactive management and responsible resource use — actually lead to better outcomes for the ecosystem. Generally, both sides agree to a mix of both approaches, but the exact ratio is up for debate.   

Eiguren falls into the latter camp. He runs 500 head of angus cattle, and he says he’s become frustrated by wilderness and monument designations blocking his efforts to care for the land. “ONDA would like to see the straight 1964 wilderness,” Eiguren says. “If we don’t interact with this land, it dies.”

Toward that end, Eiguren helped found the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition. The group of ranchers and local families is advancing a new management plan for the area. The plan calls for temporarily lifting some wilderness designations to allow ranchers to remove invasive cheatgrass and medusahead rye, introduce appropriate perennial grasses and shrubs, and develop water holes for cattle and wildlife. Eiguren says the coalition is taking feedback on its concept paper and hopes to present to the legislature in the next few years.

The rancher says tensions with ONDA have cooled since the push for the Owyhee Canyonlands monument, a campaign sponsored by Keen and other outdoor-gear manufacturers, along with environmental activists. But the whole thing feels like a dry grassland in summer — it could ignite at the drop of a match. “I think we’re talking more, just because there isn’t a big issue right now,” he says. “Things could get tense in a hurry.”

“I think we’re talking more, just because there isn’t a big issue right now. Things could get tense in a hurry.”
— Elias Eigurn

When Sylva opened a conversation with the cowboy at the edge of Louse Canyon, he kept talking about the nearby Owyhee monument. He seemed cautious. He suspected Sylva might be a clueless urbanite or, worse, an ONDA member.

But then they began poring over maps. The rancher helped Sylva find a water source; Sylva pointed the rancher toward his missing cattle. “He definitely let his guard down when I was communicating about the land,” Sylva says. “He then had a respect for me that I knew the area and was able to help him find his cows.”

The Oregon Desert Trail evokes suspicion in some rural ranchers and politicians, but others see an opportunity for common ground. Unlike many other ONDA projects, the Desert Trail has benefited from the support of ranchers. Patrick spent long hours talking with the many private landowners along the route. She never ran into pushback, she says. Some ranchers even offered hot showers or water caches for hikers.

Laird and I certainly do not think the same way about wilderness or the Malheur takeover. But in just an afternoon, I could empathize with some facets of his frustration. He doesn’t want to get 15 signatures on a 34-page document to access one water hole. He doesn’t want a hiker from Portland pulling up fences on Hart Mountain without understanding the families who put them there 150 years ago.

Those dialogues might seem like small steps, but considering the decades of bitter legal battles that have characterized this land, they are giant leaps. The opportunity for further bridge building and discussion among polarized groups sets the Oregon Desert Trail apart from its long-distance brethren.

“I saw polar opposites probably more than any place I’ve walked,” Sylva says. “It’s all intertwined around public land. But there’s still that common bond, and it all revolves around the landscape.”

11/14/18: This article has been edited to reflect the following corrections. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, not ONDA, made the descision to remove cattle from Hart Mountain. In the ligitation over Big Juniper Mountain, ONDA sued the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that owned the land on which the Lairds ran their cattle. The Lairds voluntarily intervened in the case. 

To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here.