The Badlands doesn't give up its mystique easily. On a recent field trip to survey the proposed Wilderness area east of Bend, my guide and I hiked more than an hour over dusty trails, winding through an ancient, but not necessarily, awe-inspiring juniper forest before we reached our destination - a massive lava rock formation that erupts from the sandy desert floor in jagged arches and columns.
This is Flatiron rock, one of several major geologic sites within the Badlands and one of the reasons that the Bureau of Land Management designated the Badlands as a Wilderness Study Area in 1980.
It's here that it becomes clear why - despite the presence of old jeep trails, the occasional tree stump and other tell tale signs of human impact - supporters say that the Badlands is deserving of the federal government's highest level of environmental protection.
Geologists describe Flatirons as an inflated lava feature, a product of a fissure in a lava tube that pushed molten rock to the surface of the Badlands shield volcano 80,000 years ago. It's a clue to the area's violent geologic history and the forces that shaped the surrounding region, including Bend. Today, it's an attraction for hikers who start at the trailhead about 15 miles east of Bend on Hwy. 20, and one of the reasons that Congress is looking to make Badlands only the second wilderness area east of the Cascades in Oregon.
If that happens, it will be a triumph for Badlands advocates who have pushed for two decades to get the area preserved in perpetuity through grassroots campaigns, like the most recent "yellow sign" blitz. Perhaps just as importantly, it could open the door for more wilderness protection on millions of acres of currently unprotected or only partially protected land in central and eastern Oregon, including other nearby places like Steelhead Falls and Alder Springs on the Middle Deschutes River.
"If we can't pass Badlands Wilderness legislation in eastern Oregon, we should probably just pack our bags and go home," said Bill Marlett, a founder and former executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association.
ONDA has been at the center of Badlands wilderness campaign for two decades lobbying and litigating to protect it and other areas like it. Marlett said the group has identified more than eight million acres that it thinks are worthy of wilderness protection in eastern Oregon, an area of the state that has traditionally been overlooked by wilderness planners.
Lizards abound in the Badlands lava featuresIt's not that there isn't anything worth protecting. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has identified more than two million acres of potential wilderness in eastern Oregon. But, so far, only Steens Mountain has been elevated to full wilderness status, something that happened only after then President Bill Clinton made it clear that he was going to designate the area as a national monument, said Marlett.
While wilderness bills have traditionally been a bi-partisan issue - U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican who represents all of traditionally conservative eastern Oregon, teamed up with Oregon's Democratic senator, Ron Wyden, on the proposed Mt. Hood wilderness bill - D.C.'s recent hyper-partisan politics have made it difficult to move anything smacking of conservation through Congress.
Wilderness advocates were also dealt a huge setback early in the Bush administration when then Interior Secretary Gale Norton issued an order that essentially halted the BLM from designating more wilderness study areas.
But the political landscape has started to shift, Democrats wrestled control over Congress two years ago from the GOP, and, in the process, eliminated one of the biggest obstacles to new wilderness areas, former Rep. Richard Pombo, a Central California rancher who made a career out of lambasting environmentalists and torpedoing environmental legislation as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Since the Democratic takeover, wilderness bills have seen a sudden and strong revival. In Oregon, the delegation has ramped up its wilderness agenda, led by the Mt. Hood bill that would designate some 120,000 acres around Mt. Hood as federal wilderness area. Among things, the bill would put the area off limits to logging and motorized recreation. In addition, the delegation has added requests for the Soda Mountain area in the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument, a roughly 33,000-acre area that is a mixture of alpine and desert ecosystems in southwest Oregon, and the 14,000-acre Copper Salmon area of the Siskiyou Forest. The Badlands legislation sponsored by Wyden also includes a proposal to designate John Day's Spring Basin as a federal wilderness.
"I think a shift would be an understatement. There has been a massive sea change," said Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild, a conservation group that advocates for wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers in the state.
In addition to the aforementioned wilderness areas, Oregon Wild has proposals for 142 miles of wild and scenic river designation along the Rogue River in Southwest Oregon, a renowned salmon and steelhead river and whitewater destination. Pedery said the deluge of new wilderness proposals for Oregon is long overdue and refers to often-cited statistic that shows Oregon has proportionally far fewer acres of its federal lands under wilderness protection than its neighbors in California and Washington. Even conservative Idaho is well ahead of Oregon when it comes to protecting wildlands, Pedery said.
This Congress could change that.
"Oregon has a very progressive reputation on environmental issues, but on wilderness we lag far behind," Pedery said.
According to Oregon Wild, less than four percent of Oregon's lands are designated as federal wilderness, compared with 13 percent of California's lands and 10 percent of Washington's lands.
"Oregon has historically had this deficit of wilderness," Pedery said. "We have no shortage of areas that meet the criteria, but we've had a shortage of political leaders who were willing to take up the banner and preserve those areas for future generations."
That's no longer the case. While political obstacles remain, including the threat of a hold from Sen. Tom Coburn R -Okla. who earlier this year blocked the Mt. Hood Wilderness bill, Wyden felt the time to act was now, said Tom Towslee, Wyden's communication's director in Oregon.
"I think we all just realized it was time to pull the trigger," said Towslee.
"We've been talking about this, I've been told, for as long as 20 years..and it was time to get it down in writing," said Towslee.
Towslee said they're prepared to take the bill to a vote, if necessary to override Coburn, who has threatened to block any legislation that requires any additional spending.
"I really don't think there are any other philosophical obstacles other than folks like Senator Coburn who still wants to hold up a wilderness bill because of the cost associated with it, but still pay for the war," Towslee said.
While there has been strong outpouring of political support for the wilderness areas currently proposed in the state, it remains to be seen whether that interest will translate into momentum for the millions of acres east of the Cascades that hang in limbo, as the Badlands has for the last three decades as "Wilderness Study Area." It's a designation that brings with it a certain degree of protection, but allows any previously established activities such as logging to continue. In the case of the Badlands, the area remained open to off road vehicles, for more than two decades after it was designated as Wilderness Study Area.
The decision to close the Badlands still rankles some of the area's OHV advocates who question whether the area truly merits the wilderness designation.
"What they've done is closed the Badlands to people who were actually using it," said Mona Drake, who sits on the trails committee of the Deschutes County Four Wheelers.
A retired rural mail carrier, Drake said her nieces and nephews lived out in the Alfalfa area east of Bend and grew up riding dirt bikes in the Badlands - an opportunity their kids won't have.
An avid off roader, Drake owns a white 1994 Jeep Wrangler with 39 inch tires and has been a member of the local four wheelers club for almost ten years. She said her sport is one of the fastest growing in the West and needs to be recognized by public agencies. She said those agencies ought to spend less time designating wilderness and more time building trails for off road vehicles (ORVs). Like other wilderness skeptics, Drake said there needs to be more consideration given to multiple use when deciding the future of places like the Badlands.
"It's unfortunate these people are so shortsighted they can't share a trail," Drake said.
Shifts have created openings in the lava that resemble slot canyonsBut there is plenty of evidence that wilderness type areas and ORV's don't mix. In the Badlands, dozens of trees have been harvested along the old jeep roads where poachers could easily access the ancient junipers, some which are estimated to be as much as 500 years old.
Since the road closure the incidents of theft and vandalism have dropped significantly, said David Eddleston, an ONDA volunteer who is heading a new group, Friends of the Badlands (Fobbits) that is working with the BLM to help to monitor and maintain the area.
However, he said ORV incursions into the Badlands remain one of the biggest challenges for volunteers.
ORV advocates aren't the only ones concerned about the impact of additional wilderness designations in eastern Oregon. Ranchers are watching how the BLM handles places in eastern Oregon like the Badlands and Steens where they have traditionally enjoyed grazing rights. By law, established grazing rights cannot be revoked, even by a wilderness designation. And until recently, there was no legal mechanism for ranchers to voluntarily retire their grazing rights.
The notion of cows roaming around a wilderness area has never sat well with advocates like Marlett.
"If ever there was an oxymoron in a major piece of legislation passed by Congress, then that ranks right up there at the top," he said.
As a result, ONDA has been working to essentially buy out grazing rights from ranchers, in areas like Steens and Badlands. But it took an act of Congress to get those rights retired in Steens. In the case of the Badlands, the BLM decided in a recent management plan to allow groups like ONDA to negotiate with ranchers to retire permits on low value grazing lands. The result was an agreement with local rancher, Ray Clarno, to retire roughly 22,000 acres worth of grazing rights within the Badlands.
In that sense the Badlands could serve as a model for future wilderness initiatives in eastern Oregon. Marlett said ONDA has been working with the BLM to secure a similar provision in the John Day basin where the agency is updating its management plans presently.
While that model relies on cooperation between environmental interests, government and ranchers, the latter aren't overly enthusiastic about the prospect of millions of acres of wilderness in eastern Oregon, said Bill Moore, president of the Oregon Cattleman's Association.
Moore, who runs about 11,000 head of cattle out of the Unity area in eastern Oregon, said the organization isn't philosophically opposed to the idea of retiring grazing rights.
"The way we look at that is we will try to do whatever it takes to help the local permitees accomplish what they need accomplish," Moore said. "If they think it's in their best interest to retire those permits, we don't have a lot of problem with them doing that."
But that doesn't necessarily mean the group is endorsing wilderness designation for those lands. To the contrary, the cattleman's association believes that wilderness and grazing are not only compatible, but perhaps necessary to control threats like wildfire and noxious weeds. Moore said he was also concerned that the government and conservation groups hold up their end of the financial bargain when deals are struck to buy out grazing rights - something he said isn't always happening.
It's a concern shared by Rep. Walden, said spokesperson Andrew Whelan.
He said the federal government still owes more than $5 million to ranchers in the Steens area that was promised as part of the wilderness bill. Walden has yet to sign onto the Badlands-Spring Basin wilderness bill, but Whelan said his boss looks forward to cooperating with Senator Wyden on the legislation.
ONDA's Executive Director Brent Fenty said he wasn't sure what Whelan was referring to in the Steens bill. He said his group, which worked closely on all aspects of the Steens bill, has made good on all its promises to local landowners and permitees.
"Anybody who knows me knows I'm going to bend over backward to meet and honor the commitments we've made," Fenty said.
The question now with the Badlands is: will politicians meet theirs.