As co-founder of Friends of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Alice Elshoff's patience with the armed occupation near Burns unraveled on Jan. 9. She had patiently watched the armed takeover of the 188,000-acre preserve, admitting that she didn't take it seriously at first.
On that early Saturday in January, however, all that changed. She fired off an email to her friend Rynda Clark, co-leader of a group to which Elshoff belongs called the Great Old Broads for Wilderness.
The email read as follows: "I'm having this fantasy of getting a busload of women together and letting the media know we're going over there with our umbrellas to poke those thugs until they go home and give our refuge back to the people."
Soon, Elshoff's thought crystallized into a plan: "What if we used our Great Old Broads contacts all around the West to stage some media GAB rallies, (Grandmothers Against Bullies)," she wrote to Clark. Four days later, dressed in aprons, the Great Old Broads led a large protest rally in downtown Bend and Elshoff was the first speaker. Waving a rolling pin in her hand, she told rally supporters, "Rest assured we are ready to go there and send those bullies who are desecrating our land back to their mamas."
The Bend rally was the first of many organized around the state to draw attention to the value of public lands and to counter the armed occupation of the Malheur Refuge.
Elshoff told the Source Weekly that her first reaction to the occupation was that it was ludicrous. "We couldn't believe it was actually serious," she explained. As time went on she began to see how serious occupiers were about taking over the federal refuge for their private use. "I began to feel personally violated to see people over there damaging a place that we care so much about," she said. Federal officials estimate that more than $6 million in damages and other costs, including harm to sacred grounds of the Burns Paiute Nation, was caused by the occupiers.
Public Lands Protests
Other voices supporting Elshoff and public lands grew louder. Five days after the rally in Bend, an angry Gov. Kate Brown declared at a news conference: "The residents of Harney County have been overlooked and underserved by federal officials' response thus far. I have conveyed these very grave concerns directly to our leaders at the highest levels of our government: The U.S. Department of Justice and the White House." Elshoff's impatience echoed loudly and clearly throughout Oregon and the nation.
"Alice is an incredible role model, someone who follows her passions with commitment and integrity," says Joanne Richter, co-leader of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness in Central Oregon. "She speaks softly, but her energy and determination inspire me and countless others to support her. Her contributions and leadership in the conservation community are incalculable, invaluable and irreplaceable," says Richter.
Clark concurs. "We all agree she is our hero. It is likely she has done more for our community and planet than anyone else in Central Oregon."
The Malheur occupation not only failed, but boomeranged to create a new wave of support for federal public lands owned by all Americans. Elshoff says things are slowly turning around at the refuge, but it will be a long time before the public can fully use it again. Noting there is much work to be done, she says there is near-term help. "Since January our group has received over $70,000 that we can use on projects around the refuge." Friends of the Malheur National Refuge will soon be allowed back on the land. The first project the group is planning is May 7, when it will plant a pollinator garden by the observation pond. "Our monarch butterflies and bees are in trouble, and this is one thing we can do that everybody can feel good about."
Malhuer: a Journey Spanning 55 Years
Alice Elshoff has a personal history with the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that dates back more than half a century. She grew up with an appreciation for natural beauty and during her college years in Colorado worked in summer camps in the Rocky Mountains. Following college, Elshoff came to Oregon to begin a teaching career where she says the most fun she ever had was teaching at a two-room schoolhouse in Alfalfa. She met her husband Cal in Oregon and moved to Bend in 1960. It was Cal, a biologist and teacher, who introduced her to the refuge for the first time, and she fell in love with what she saw. Reflecting on those years, she says there have been a lot of changes at the refuge.
She has seen many floods and droughts at the Malheur, but the one constant, she says, is the birds. "The birds keep coming no matter what. They keep migrating from South America to the Arctic to Siberia, stitching the continents together." The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a stop-off point along the Pacific Flyway where hundreds of varieties of birds rest, breed and nest.
Educator and Conservationist
After retiring from her teaching career, Elshoff and her husband moved to the refuge and lived there for nearly 12 years. How they came to move there is an interesting story in itself. A 200-acre ranch near the refuge would provide needed water enhancements and connectivity to critical habitat if purchased and included as part of the overall refuge. The owners were willing to sell, but there was a disagreement on the price the government would pay for the ranch. Elshoff and her husband stepped up and loaned the extra amount so the purchase could be made. At that time the ranch was unoccupied, so the Elshoffs accepted an offer to live there while working on behalf of the refuge.
George Wuerthner, a nationally noted researcher and wildlife conservationist, says, "Alice Elshoff has been a steady advocate for wildlife and wilderness for decades, particularly for Oregon's desert wildlands. Even opponents love her because of her smiling, cheerful, honest, and energetic personality."
Elshoff now serves as vice chair of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which was formed in 1999 as a nonprofit organization. One of the first Malheur projects was to create a safe parking area for the public to access the refuge. Since then, there have been many trail-building and weed control projects, and ongoing efforts to promote and educate people about the importance of the refuge for migrating birds and other wildlife. The group's mission is "to conserve, enhance, and restore fish and wildlife habitat and cultural history in the Harney Basin in southeast Oregon supporting the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge staff and programs."
Alice Elshoff, a Friend to Many
Though she is well known for her organizing activities on behalf of the refuge, Elshoff is also co-founder of two other organizations that are helping protect Oregon's natural treasures: The Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and the Central Oregon chapter of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, who call themselves "The Bitterbrush Broads."
In honor of her work on behalf of ONDA, the organization presents "The Alice Elshoff Desert Conservation Award" each year to recognize individuals who make significant contributions to protecting Oregon's desert.
"Alice connects people with wild places, our best hope for the future," says Bill Marlett, co-founder, Oregon Natural Desert Association. "Alice is special because she has the drive to organize and lead others to protect nature. Wilderness has no better friend than Alice."
Elshoff is humble about her accomplishments and says that the word "legacy" is too strong when used to describe her work. She prefers to compliment others, saying she is happy to come up with ideas and even happier to delegate them. She says that in the coming years she plans to focus on and work more closely with the Friends of the Malheur.
Her co-founder of Friends of the Malheur National Refuge, Gary Ivey, board chair, speaks from the heart: "Alice is a leader who motivates love of natural places in people," he says, adding, "Her passion for nature is contagious."
Planning for the Future
"The work ahead of us is to make everyone in the country aware of how important our public lands are to everyone," says Elshoff. "Our public lands are the envy of the world, linking the past to the present. They have to be maintained and cherished," she says.
Reflecting on her work as an educator and conservationist, Elshoff says, "If anything that I have done has helped young people get connected with wildlands, I will go to the way beyond a happy woman."
The Source Weekly is proud to announce Alice Elshoff as its 2016 Woman of the Year.