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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 4.12.07

Refuge

Part I: Where Land and Water Meet

BY MARY O'BRIEN

When we went to Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon for spring break this year, it was the first time in 20 years. The times before, our two boys were with us; now they have migrated elsewhere. Twenty years ago, a marsh hosted a deafening predawn chorus of birds three minutes from the field station trailers. This year the marsh was eerily dry and silent.

Some things were the same. Sage grouse males strutted and made popping sounds with their chest sacs in the cold, predawn dark at the very same spot in sagebrush. Sandhill cranes, those tall, 2.5 million-year-old birds with 7-foot wing spans, uttered their ancient-sounding call as they strode in slow motion across fields. Trumpeter swans were gliding on narrow streams, and jackrabbits still bounded on long legs. The ducks and geese were still sufficiently big and brightly-colored for even new or rusty birders like us to identify. Refuge staff were still fiddling with the water machinery and dikes. Cattle were still grazing the lands around the refuge.

And the small refuge visitor center was still there, offering maps and advice to visitors. But this year a newish book was on display: Where Land and Water Meet: a Western Landscape Transformed by Nancy Langston. I recognized the historian's name — years ago I had read with fascination her book Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares, about the manner in which early settlers, loggers, herders and the Forest Service perceived, used and tried to control the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon. Where Land and Water Meet is an equally astonishing history, this time about the manner in which early Paiute, trappers, ranchers, homesteaders, Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service perceived, used and tried to control the streams, floods, lakes and wetlands that are now Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

As Langston records, Paiute adapted to the marshes and flooding of fields. Hudson's Bay Company trappers removed the dam-building beavers to ruin the land so Americans wouldn't come in. Ranchers built canals to flood their fields for cattle food. Homesteaders drained marshes to live on, farm and grow food for cattle. The ranchers and homesteaders killed the Paiute to take their land. The Bureau of Reclamation drained marshes and dug channels to allow more homesteaders to move in. Drought and floods came, and one particular birder campaigned to get the disaster area declared a wildlife refuge. Then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (and CCC) dug channels and built dikes to get water back out on the land to produce ducks. They killed the beaver and sprayed the willows with herbicide because beaver and willows interfered with their engineering for ducks. They (unsuccessfully) poisoned exotic carp that escaped from Lake Malheur and drained some of Lake Malheur to let ranchers graze cattle. Then they reduced the grazing because it was destroying the streams. And now they are trying to get flooding, willows and beavers back and are trying to pay attention to more than just duck production. And now they'll have to manage in the face of global warming.

And why is that marsh now dry which 20 years ago hosted the predawn chorus? The 1980s (when I last was there) were extraordinarily wet years, never to be seen since (or maybe again).

As with all well-researched and clearly-written environmental history books, Where Land and Water Meet leaves the reader sadder (for what has been removed from the world); more informed (about how nature works and about the stories humans tell themselves about how nature works); grateful (for some people who notice and respect how nature really works); and, hopefully, wiser (about social processes that encourage humans to be more careful of the world).

Every spot on Earth has a history like this. We're quite the fateful species.

Next month, Part II: Where Land and Water Meet in West Eugene

Mary O'Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at mob@efn.org