Concerning a Wilderness


Concerning a Wilderness

by Ursula K. Le Guin

I spoke briefly last week at a celebration of the 15th anniversary of the Steens Mountain Wilderness, October 2, 2015, in Portland, held by the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

Anniversary Cake

Getting an area designated Wilderness is no easy matter, even when, or especially if, it’s so far away from urban areas that most people never heard of it. A Wilderness designation offers protection from ruinous land use, reckless development, and recreational over-exploitation. Beautiful, remote, unique, and fragile, the Steens high desert region is one of the jewels in Oregon’s crown. We can hope that Crater Lake (a National Park since 1902, but not yet a Wilderness) and the amazing Owyhee Canyonlands will soon join it.

Here’s how Matt Kertman, the Outreach Director, describes ONDA:

Nearly half of Oregon is high desert, characterized by rolling uplands, jagged mountains and canyons, rushing rivers and rich wildlife. The Oregon Natural Desert Association is the only nonprofit organization that works exclusively to protect, defend and restore this high desert. ONDA has worked in stunning, ecologically significant areas in the Central Oregon Backcountry, John Day River Basin, Greater Hart-Sheldon Region and the Owyhee Canyonlands for almost 30 years. Learn more at

I’ve been a member for a long time and thoroughly admire the work ONDA does and how they do it. They’re based in Bend, and many of their members are Eastern Oregonians. At the meeting, I tried to express my appreciation of the way they handle relations with the people who live in the remoter desert areas. Efforts to conserve and protect wilderness often meet local pressures and resistances rising from ignorance or from greedy dreams of easy money from development. Education and awareness can change the balance there. But the education and the awareness have to go both ways.

Nobody likes being told how to live where they live by somebody who doesn’t live there. Much of the population of Eastern Oregon consists of people who don’t want anybody telling them anything at all. Part of their ethos could be reduced to something like: You need help, we’ll give it, generously and with good will. And we’ll keep our cows off your grass, and you keep yours off ours.

Cattle ranching is still one of the ways to make a living in the Steens area. I’m not going to recite the many ways in which this always was a poor way to use this land and is now rapidly becoming an impossible one both economically and ecologically. That’s not in question.

The problem is that there are families who’ve been ranching there for four or five generations. (My great-grandfather tried it on the Steens, around 1870, but gave it up.) These people and their animals are just as much a part of “the scenery” as the buttes and the marshes, the egrets and the eagles. Grazing practices that have impoverished the land can be and are being reduced and improved, and many of the ranchers are as aware of the need for this as any ecologist.

On the ranch I know best, the cattle are entirely grass fed, freely grazing in uncrowded grasslands by a river. They’re handled when handling is necessary by a few people on horseback or little ORVs – no hazing by helicopter, etc. Old cows and ailing calves are walked in to pastures near the ranch house to be cared for. When the time comes to move or sell off animals for beef, they aren’t crammed into trucks but led out onto the road by a cowboy or two to go along at their own gait. Drivers in cars on that road go at that gait for a while too, in the dust, among the big half-curious eyes of the cattle and the soft, random mooing.

I’m not describing this sentimentally, nor to defend raising cattle for beef, but to try to counter the impression that all beef is a product of enormous corporations that keep the animals in cruel, filthy, shameful misery. There are cattle outfits where the relationship of people and animals is more like the relationship of gardener and garden: knowledgeable, intimate, hands-on, and tending towards mutual benefit.

The reason I brought up the ranches and the ranchers at the ONDA meeting, and here, is this: I went out to the Steens country because I’d fallen in love with it, the desert, the scenery. It took me years to realise how much I was learning by living on a ranch for a few days a year, watching domestic animals as well as wild ones, and talking with the people. Slowly I began to see the scenery as what it is to them: their world, by birth or choice; their life, often their parents’ and their children’s life. They know it deeply, they curse it from the bottom of their hearts for its implacable obstinacy, they love it and give their lives to it.

It’s only too easy to antagonize “the locals” by appearing to dismiss their hard-earned local knowledge or giving the impression that the aesthetic emotions or escapist yearnings of hikers, campers, birders, tourists are more valuable than the ranchers’ relationship to the land and the living they and their animals earn from it.

Such antagonisms can be modified by patient listening on both sides, genuine conversation, working towards a mutual good. Sounds easy. It’s complicated. Nothing in conservation work is ever uncomplicated! But I’m proud of ONDA for working on that conversation, being neighborly, trying to include the human landscape in the natural one as truly part of what is to be honored, protected, and saved.

At the meeting I read some poems from Out Here, the book Roger Dorband and I did about that country. I’ll end with one from its history. In the 1890’s the P Ranch covered a great part of what we now call Harney County and the Steens. Frenchglen (population ~12) is named for the man who ran it, who built barns the way the Middle Ages built cathedrals.

The Cattle King

He turned his back in scorn, did Peter French,
unarmed, and the homesteader shot him dead,
on the land he’d got by hook or crook, P Ranch —

the cattle kingdom he was ruling, still
convinced he’d break the desert to his will,
control it all; and yet his partners profited,
ate up the cash and cheated Peter French.

Controlling, cheating, ruling, we’ve done ill
and ill and ill again to this great spread
we got by hook or crook, this empire-ranch,
this Harney County. Maybe we’ll learn until
we learn to use it well. Of him let it be said:
his lifeblood’s in this land where he lies dead.



Concerning a Wilderness — 3 Comments

  1. Astute insights! Here in rural Whatcom County, Northwest Washington, we have similar issues between “county” and “city” (our modest city of Bellingham) about uses of the land. Thanks for exploring the complexities and promoting communication.

  2. Ursula came to speak to my high school writing class many years ago. I don’t think one really considers the potential of making a lasting impact when making a simple presentation to a group of students but it did. I’ve never forgotten her quiet strength and resilience. Although I did not pursue a career in writing, her words did have an influence on my career in art and how I approached it. I would like to say, forty years later, from the bottom of my heart thank you.

  3. It never hurts to recognize our common humanity with those on “the other side” of an issue. Maybe there really are no sides. We are all here passing our alotted time, and most of us are just trying to make the best of it, but maybe we have different ideas of what is best. Communication and understanding never hurt.