Roughly situated between Sisters and Terrebonne, Alder Springs lies at the foot of the Central Cascades with Black Butte looming on the western horizon. As the vehicle lumbers farther from pavement and civilization, Gray Butte, Smith Rock and the mesas of the high desert dominate views to the east.
Minutes after turning off Holmes Rd. farms and verdant fields give way to beige and sage. Scrubby juniper trees and deep canyons unfold on the horizon.
After parking the Jeep, Gena Goodman-Campbell gathers her supplies and leads a friend down into the shaded depths of Whychus Creek watershed. The canyon below looks to hold some promise of respite from the hot desert sun overhead.
Goodman-Campbell, the Central Oregon Coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association - a Bend-based nonprofit that works to protect and restore the health of Oregon's native deserts - is lobbying to permanently preserve this unique landscape by drafting a proposal that would designate the surrounding area as wilderness. The Whychus-Deschutes Wilderness Proposal, as it is currently written, includes 18,973 acres of public land between and around the two waterways and has drawn healthy doses of both support and ire from community members.
The debate is reminiscent of the discussion around the Badlands Wilderness proposal, another relatively small-scale wilderness initiative backed by ONDA that was bandied around for the better part of a decade before supporters gathered enough momentum to convince Congress to designate the Badlands area east of Bend as a federal wilderness. In both cases, the efforts challenged people's perception of what constitutes wilderness and just how much protection is necessary for natural areas. Most interestingly, the preliminary discussion around Alders Springs has raised the question of whether the concerns of private property owners should dictate how to best manage public lands.
It's a question that's not unique to Central Oregon, but perhaps distilled more clearly here in the High Desert where population growth and a patchwork of private-public land ownership have forced wilderness advocates to contend with the wishes of neighboring property owners whose support could make or break a wilderness campaign.
Those opposed to the Whychus-Deschutes wilderness proposal made their voices heard at a recent town hall meeting in Terrebonne. While concerns of wildfire and response time in a wilderness area (particularly one so near to a residential zone) dominated most of the night's discussion, a certain handful of those in attendance had already made up their minds.
"We have enough protection," one older resident said afterward. "There's nothing they (ONDA) could say or do that would change my mind."
"We've been slowly losing our rights," said another.
The local back and forth struggle on how to manage public lands is indicative of the larger political tug-of-war currently playing out in Washington D.C. While Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and some Democrats attempt to reverse the Bush-era policy dubbed "No More Wilderness" by seeking to expand protection of public lands, some members of the GOP are countering by attempting to undo 40-year old regulatory policies that promote preservation - policies most Republicans see as governmental overreaching.
In a recent editorial in The Bulletin, Crooked River Ranch resident and retired USFS employee David Klym wrote, "Crooked River Ranch residents need to be afraid of the Whychus-Deschutes Wilderness proposal...This is not a "feel-good" issue; this a "life-and-death" issue," Klym concludes while focusing on the dangers of wildfire spreading from a wilderness area.
Other area residents, like Crooked River Ranch Fire Chief Tim McLaren, have kept an open mind about the proposed wilderness area.
McLaren recently became the first public official to oppose the wilderness plan, but said that his support hinges on where the boundaries are drawn.
"If it was west of the Deschutes River, so it wasn't butted up against private land (I could support the designation)," McLaren stated.
"She (Goodman-Campbell) and I will work together to find a happy medium," McLaren said.
Because of its unique and rugged beauty, ample recreational opportunities and cultural significance, the area around the Deschutes River and Whychus Creek was designated a Wilderness Study Area in 1984. Since then, it has been managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Crooked River National Grassland as a de facto wilderness area. In fact, Congress designated the Deschutes River as a federal Wild and Scenic River in 1988. That designation preserves a quarter-mile corridor on the river, in this case from Odin Falls to the upper-end of Lake Billy Chinook. Other segments of the Deschutes also carry a federal Wild and Scenic River designation.
However, Goodman-Campbell and other proponents of the Alder Springs wilderness say that development pressures and encroachment from motorized vehicles necessitate greater protection for the area. While a Wild and Scenic designation maintains the river corridor, Goodman-Campbell says it's also important to protect the integrity of the surrounding landscape for wildlife, like mule deer. The Whychus-Deschutes proposal would add consistency to the layers of protection already invested in the Deschutes canyon, she adds. It would also protect Whychus Creek, a key spawning area for steelhead, as part of a roughly $200 million species-recovery project aimed at restoring historic salmon and steelhead runs in the upper Deschutes basin.
"It's a powerful tool to protect our long-term investment in the Whychus area," says Ryan Houston, Coordinator for the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council. The local nonprofit recently lended its support by publicly backing the Whychus-Deschutes Wilderness Proposal.
A wilderness designation would expand the existing buffer zone around Alder Springs while permanently protecting the area from development and other forms of environmental degradation using the nation's strictest land preservation law. ONDA is specifically concerned with prohibiting motorized travel and recreation as well construction of any new roads in the area. While the Alder Springs area is currently under no known threat from mining, natural gas extraction or other efforts, ONDA's proposal would ensure that the landscape is never exploited for such purposes. What would be allowed in the wilderness area is camping, hiking and driving to the various trailheads on existing roads. A wilderness designation would also honor existing grazing rights established prior to the designation as well as the maintenance of fences and other features as outlined by the 1980 Congressional Grazing Guidelines document. Outfitters and guide services may operate in a wilderness area with a special permit. Fire and other emergency personnel are permitted to use motorized and mechanized assistance when the health and safety of people, property and livestock is threatened. An important provision given local's stated concerns about the threat of wildfire emanating from any new wilderness area that could spread to private property.
Wilderness can be a divisive subject, both here in Central Oregon and nationally, particularly in the West where most of the potential wilderness is found.
Unlike other federal land management decisions that take place at the local or regional level, wilderness designation literally requires an act of Congress. Like many pieces of legislation, proposed wild land areas are treated as pawns - traded back in forth in bills, widely slashed under Republican administrations and broadly included under Democratic ones. Such bills have stalled out since the midterm elections when Democrats lost control of the House and Congress began a rapid descent into partisan rancor. However, wilderness advocates still managed to secure 2.1 million acres of new wilderness areas, including the Badlands east of Bend and roughly 130,000 acres around Mt. Hood. The bill, which was signed into law in 2009 represented a significant win for wilderness supporters who were largely stymied by the Bush administration. Proponents predicted that victory would usher in a new era for wilderness-related bills that had been previously stalled. However, that hasn't happened. Quite the contrary, the sweeping GOP victory in the midterms has created a situation that is openly hostile to many environmental programs and regulatory measures.
Only a month ago, Republicans in the House tacked on 39 anti-environment proposals to an appropriations bill (with more to come), according to a story in the New York Times. Some were so radical (one measure would prevent the BLM from designating any new wilderness areas while another would forbid the Fish and Wildlife Service from adding any new plants or animals to the Endangered Species Act list) that even some Republicans opposed the most extreme measures.
"The new Republican majority seems intent on restoring the robber-baron era where there were no controls on pollution from power plants, oil refineries and factories," noted Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat.
With wilderness evolving into an increasingly contentious issue, the timing of ONDA's Whychus-Deschutes proposal is noteworthy. Although it's not clear if or when an Alder Springs bill would be introduced, it could be only a matter of a months. At this point, Goodman said that ONDA has not yet secured a sponsor for the bill, but is talking to all of the region's Congressional representatives. While the political currents may seem to be running against ONDA, Goodman said there isn't a good or bad time to introduce a wilderness bill for Alder Springs. Given the recent restoration efforts, however, now seemed like a good time to bring the idea forward.
"We want to reflect and sustain those investments," says Goodman-Campbell.
A Place that
Upon pulling off her now dusty shoes and wading across the cool, clear creek, Goodman-Campbell reaches the other side and walks quickly through the alder and tall river grass toward an overhanging basalt cliff.
"Look at this, it's a big elk," says Goodman-Campbell excitedly, pointing to a faded painting on the rock wall. Sure enough, there is an ancient pictograph of an elk, complete with a large rack and big belly.
"This was hunting camp central," said the ONDA representative. One of many in the area, the pictograph serves as evidence of the area's rich cultural heritage.
The polished stone tool debris of shell middens and other lithic scatter offer myriad evidence of those who once roamed these hills. Such resources are delicate and sensitive to the impact of humans. Even the touching the pictographs is discouraged since the oils from peoples' hands can cause the images to wear and fade.
The quiet solitude one feels when walking down into the Whychus-Deschutes area is a part of what makes it such an appealing recreation destination, reminds Goodman-Campbell. From hunting and fishing, to hiking and camping, to birding and wildlife watching, the high desert locale has long been a favorite haven for many outdoor enthusiasts who find solace in the relatively remote nature of the proposed wilderness area.
Hiking is perhaps the most popular activity in the Whychus-Deschutes area, with options aplenty. There are three main trails that vary in length and difficulty, with the Scout Camp Trail and Alder Springs options offering the best camping options. Both allow visitors to walk beside moving water and camp in the shade of the lush, riparian area. Six backpackers that appear to be in their early twenties, climb up the trail from down below. The group of friends had camped in a small meadow near Alder Springs the night before. About an hour later, Goodman-Campbell steps aside for two women with trekking poles, laughing and talking as they descend toward the springs. Both appearing to be in their mid-40s and fit, the women offer a cheerful "Hello!" as they pass by.
In the fall, hunters migrate to the area from Central Oregon and beyond to take advantage of the ample birds, mule deer and occasional elk that are attracted by the water. Anglers, too, hold the Whychus-Deschutes in high regard for the native redband and brown trout that reside in the area. For kayakers, paddling the Steelhead Falls section of the Deschutes remains a big draw. Goodman-Campbell said that none of these existing uses would be impacted by a formal wilderness designation, which according to some studies only enhances awareness and low-impact use of areas like Alder Springs.
As Central Oregon grows, protecting the Whychus-Deschutes becomes even more important, says Lynn Miller, a farmer who owns 2,100 acres abutting the western border of the proposed wilderness area. For the last 22 years, Miller - the editor and publisher of the Small Farmer's Journal, author of 14 books on the subject of alternative agriculture as well as the cofounder and vice president of the Small Farms Conservancy - has farmed his land using such low-impact methods as employing the services of draft horses while avoiding the use of herbicides, fungicides and other harmful fertilizers.
A permanent wilderness designation would ensure that, even as more people move to the High Desert, the land is never developed or degraded, he says.
"If it's protected, we can get more from it," says Miller.
According to a 2007 study conducted by Headwaters Economics located in Bozeman, Mont., for ONDA, areas with more wilderness (rather than less) are likely to have a higher per capita income ($1,800 higher) and lower unemployment. Goodman-Campbell says that nearby wild lands and access to recreational opportunities are continually cited as top attractions for new businesses.
Robert Windlinx, Jr., an adjacent landowner, agrees.
"In a time when we need to do as much as we can to enhance the area and help attract new businesses and workers to our region, a Whychus-Deschutes Wilderness is one thing that can add to our competitive economic advantage."
Windlinx says he supports the proposal, "110 percent."
Wildlife, Habitat and Rugged Beauty
When all is still, it's easy to hear the song of the canyon wren, apparent by the bronze flash on its tail.
"It sounds like it's laughing at you," jokes Goodman-Campbell of the wren's distinct call.
The Whychus-Deschutes area is home to native wildflowers, towering old growth ponderosas and even some firs that seem to thrive deep in the canyons, nearer to the water's edge. But the landscape, with its sloping hillsides and fragile hoodoo spires, is a delicate one.
"I feel with the core of my being how fragile the balance is in that area," says Miller.
The impact of recreational driving, or "four-wheeling," is obvious. It is not uncommon to see the tracks from truck tires leading off of the road and over the sage and the rabbit brush, which blooms yellow throughout most of the summer.
Makeshift camps are marked by trash, abandoned metal folding chairs, donut-tracks and other scattered debris. Such a sight would be mitigated by the motorized vehicle ban that a wilderness designation carries.
"In my 20-plus years here I've seen a tremendous amount of damage done by motorized traffic. That area (Alder Springs) is a very sensitive wildlife and biological habitat. If we start changing that pattern, we'll change the landscape," adds the long-time farmer.
While there are some aspects of the wilderness proposal that Goodman-Campbell says are "non-negotiable," such as the ban on motorized vehicles, the ONDA representative says she's very open to new ideas and the concerns of neighboring residents.
"I know it's possible to protect the land and address their (neighboring residents) concerns," says Goodman-Campbell, who says that Alder Springs has the potential for a win-win wilderness proposal - and one that would also be successful in Congress.
"If we can create a truly collaborative proposal, then I think we do have a chance."