The term "wilderness" typically conjures up images of a forested landscape buried deep in the mountains of Oregon. Fifteen years ago a new type of Oregon wilderness was born when the Steens Mountain Wilderness was so designated by Congress in 2000, via the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management & Protection Act. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the 170,000-acre desert wilderness is home to elk, mule deer, cougars, the greater sage-grouse, golden eagles, falcons, pronghorn, and other wildlife.
"Thanks to the hard work of many fifteen years ago, Steens Mountain remains a place of magnificent beauty, grand vistas, and rich wildlife habitat," said Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. "ONDA today remains committed to a vital Steens Mountain. That includes diligent efforts to restore streams, remove obsolete fence, and, when needed, take action to defend the integrity of the Steens Mountain Wilderness."
According to Fenty, ONDA came to be as a result of a diverse group of residents converging to share their love of Oregon's deserts.
"They were driven to action by their conviction that the government's recent inventory of wild desert lands had missed a huge chunk of the places that they knew and loved," said Fenty. "Sure enough, when they banded together to take up their own inventory of Oregon's wild places, it was confirmed that there are nearly eight million acres of wilderness-quality land in Eastern Oregon."
With that inventory came the realization that, without a group dedicated to protect, defend, and restore these wild desert lands, they could be lost forever. So, ONDA was born.
Easily mistaken as a chain of mountains, Steens is one contiguous monolith. The largest fault-block mountain in North America, it stretches for 30 miles with summits that reach a vertical mile that all overlook the Alvord Desert.
Especially known for its four U-shaped, ice age era, glacier-carved gorges, which are surrounded by aspen stands that glow red and gold in autumn, the designated wilderness area hosts more than 100,000 visitors a year to hunt, fish, camp, bird watch, hike, and more. Half-mile deep trenches gouged through layers of hard basalt resulted in The Kiger, Little Blitzen, Big Indian, and Wildhorse Gorges. The famous notch in the east ridge of Kiger Gorge formed during a later glaciation when a small glacier in Mann Creek Canyon eroded through the ridge top. Finally, internal pressures forced the east edge of the Steens upward.
Bend resident, Karl Findling, owner and co-founder of Oregon Pack Works, has over 34 years of hunting, backpacking, and outdoor experience, and is a frequent visitor to the Steens.
"I hunt, fish, hike, bike, ski, and snowmobile in the Steens," said Findling, who is also a member of the Steens Mountain Advisory Council, representing mechanized and consumptive groups.
As part of the congressional action forming the wilderness, the SMAC is a 12-member council that provides advice to the BLM regarding land management, programs, and incentives to improve the wilderness landscape and the development of a management plan for the area.
Findling, a paramedic and professional firefighter as well, found himself fighting wildland fires in the Steens for the BLM while putting himself through college in 1984 and 1985. But for pure recreation, Findling is drawn to the Kiger Gorge, especially its east-face viewpoint known as the East Rim.
For hiking, Findling recommends Wildhorse Lake, and for fishing he might be found anywhere along the Donner und Blitzen river.
The Blitzen River Trail is one way to experience the river, beginning at the southern tip of Page Springs Campground at the base of Steens Mountain, following the river to its junction with Fish Creek. There are many fishing spots along the way, and the BLM highly recommends visitors "catch and release" the beautiful redband trout so as to preserve the unique species. Overnight backpacking is available at established primitive campsites found within the canyon.
"Those are the highlights and largest attractions," noted Findling. "And, the fall is always great with the large aspen groves ablaze with color."
To celebrate the wilderness's 15th anniversary, ONDA is hosting two screenings of the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, presenting the year's best outdoor adventure and conservation films. Selected films will take viewers to the sands of Namibia, the top of the Grand Tetons, and down the Colorado River. It will also include the premiere of ONDA's new film about the Greater Hart-Sheldon Region, Sagebrush Sisters. Celebrating the Steens, the festival will include sweet treats, a photo booth, a photo contest, and recognition of the hard work many put into ensuring this landscape remains intact for future generations. All in the spirit of celebrating Oregon's deserts.
"Oregon is home to a wild desert landscape that has touched many souls," noted Fenty. "Whether it is the smell of sagebrush, the warmth of the desert sun, or wild rivers that draw you, the beauty and solitude of Oregon's high desert is unparalleled."
To get to the Steens: Head to Burns and then take State Highway 78 southeast for approximately two miles. Turn right onto State Highway 205 and travel south for 60 miles to Frenchglen, turning left onto the Steens Mountain Loop Road.
Wild & Scenic Film Festival Tower Theater on Friday, October 2 with shows at 4 pm and 7:30 pm. For tickets visit towertheatre.org/tickets-and-events/wild-scenic-film-festival.