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Malheur is a refuge, not a fortress

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I’ve seen the pictures of armed men moving into buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. These are buildings I know well, having visited the refuge many times, both as a camper and, most recently, for six weeks as a volunteer. The images on the news are jarring, because while the men are using the space as a fortress, for me it’s always been a place of tranquility.

During one memorable visit, I woke up to the song of canyon wrens nesting in the nearby rock face. Dressing quickly, I left my campsite and was soon on a rock about knee-high at the entrance to the north loop of Steens Mountain. It was getting lighter. The snowmelt from the mountain had replenished the wetland below. The sun, still behind the mountain, was high enough to cast a pink glow on the hills and rimrock to the south and west.

The Northern Paiute people lived here before settlers and the U.S. Army drove them out in the 1870s. What would living here have been like for those first people? In the silence, I imagined I was a member of that tribe, looking out at a landscape that might have looked very similar to what I saw now.

A few minutes more and the sun was above the mountain. The spell was broken. I wasn’t a Native American but the daughter of immigrants who came to New York and Pennsylvania from Europe. Like many others, I’d been coming here for years to marvel at the sight of millions of migrating birds and to soak up the peace, the silence that the wild landscape offered.

Now a group of men from outside Oregon had taken over the refuge, creating an armed outpost. Their actions were so discordant to this place set aside for all of us to enjoy — and to protect birds nearly wiped out in the early 1900s, when an ounce of plume feathers was worth as much or more than an ounce of gold.

To volunteer was a chance to give back to a place that had given me so much joy, to share it with others. I stayed in a house on the headquarters property with another volunteer who had come from Minnesota.

On my first day volunteering at the visitor center, my route to work offered a good look at sandhill cranes gathering just to the south, and I spied the tall ears of jack rabbits blending into the brush. Turkey vultures perched on the lookout tower, the same tower now occupied by a man with a gun.

Many people, whether staying in Burns, nearby campgrounds or bed and breakfasts, began their day at the refuge. A surprising number were first-timers. I gave them brochures and told them how the snowmelt from Steens Mountain provided water to the Blitzen River, while snowmelt from the Blue Mountains to the north fed the Silvies River. Ranches north of the refuge had rights to the Silvies water, while the refuge and ranches around it had rights to the Blitzen. This was a drought year, and Malheur Lake, sometimes as large as 110,000 acres, was down to just 2,000. The water table was so low that some had seen their wells go dry.

Once a week, I went to Burns and Hines for groceries and get a book or two from the library. Everyone I met in town was friendly and helpful. If there was resentment toward the federally owned refuge, I never felt it.

Because the armed men at the refuge are not from Oregon, they may not have heard of William Stafford, Oregon’s former poet laureate who was born 102 years ago on Jan. 17. In a poem titled “Malheur Before Dawn,” Stafford captured the Malheur I know:

An owl sound wandered along the road with me.

I didn’t hear it — I breathed it into my ears.

Little ones at first, the stars retired, leaving

polished little circles on the sky for a while.

Then the sun began to shout from below the horizon.

Throngs of birds campaigned, their music a tent of sound.

From across a pond, out of the mist,

one drake made a V and said its name.

Some vast animal of sound began to rouse

from the reeds and lean outward.

Frogs discovered their national anthem again.

I didn’t know a ditch could hold so much joy.

So magic a time it was that I was both brave and afraid.

Some day like this might save the world.

I’m hoping that the political drama unfolding in Eastern Oregon won’t overshadow what a unique, tranquil place this “fortress” is. I’m hoping that this time, the magic might save Malheur.

Debby de Carlo is a writer who has contributed to Sustainable Life and other Pamplin Media Group publications. She lives in Portland.