I've never taken a drive, much less completed a foot race, in the rugged country around Steens Mountain. However, if this high-desert topography is anything like the pictures I've seen and the descriptions I've read, it's unlikely a platoon of spike-tired Humvees, much less a hundred or so lightweight, fleet-footed high school runners, could mar this landscape.
In case you've missed the headlines, the Steens Mountain Running Camp has run into opposition from environmentalists.Wilderness Watch of Missoula, Mont., is one group that applauds the running camp's emphasis on outdoor education, recreation and fitness training for high school students, but questions the camp's Big Day hike/run into the Big Indian and Little Blitzen canyons in the newly created wilderness area.
About 150 or 180 kids make the run. Supposedly, their Reeboks might disrupt the mountain ecosystem and offend purists of wilderness protection.
I guess I've grown jaded. When I hear claims about how "fragile" and "delicate" certain landscapes are, I consider the real reasons politicians and organizations might want to use such language to further their cause. They usually want to justify rendering certain public lands off limits for productive use. The same terminology of "fragile" and "delicate" came into play to describe the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. I've toured that monument. You could set off an atomic bomb on the desert floor, and the only noticeable difference would be a few charred cacti and some extra slot canyons. You also might irradiate a few endangered ground squirrels, but if the federal government identified them as endangered, that would mean there's an overabundance of them anyway.
Indulge me in a few more moments of outrageous cynicism.
The reason President William "Sell to the Highest Bidder" Clinton mugged for the cameras at the Grand Canyon and signed over Grand Staircase as an untouchable national monument, rather than a multiple-use tract of Bureau of Land Management land, was not because the desert possessed any unique merit as an ecological wonder. The land's only liability was the fact that it possessed valuable, untapped coal reserves. Clinton, the king of pardons and payoffs, wanted to reward certain Indonesian campaign contributors who also happened to possess strategic coal reserves in their country. Utah took it in the shorts. Clinton didn't care. Utah voted for Bush Sr. anyway.
The reason Rep. Greg Walden drafted the Steens Mountain Wilderness Act of 2000 (with all due respect to the congressman, who is an outstanding representative) was because he and other members of Congress faced a blackmail threat from then-Secretary of Interior Bruce "Can't I Have It?" Babbitt. In the waning months of the Clinton administration, Babbitt was threatening monument designations as far as the eye could see. Steens Mountain was spared, only to become the focus of penny-ante challenges to its historic uses. Occupants on and around Steens Mountain avoided a bludgeoning from Clinton's monument pen, but a death by a thousand cuts may be their fate.
It could be my cynicism is overwrought. Perhaps, "fragile" and "delicate" are apt descriptions for Steens Mountain. Perhaps, Steens is a marvelous place with fascinating geography, geology, etc., worthy of wilderness designation.
However, when environmentalists start complaining about a running camp using a wilderness area, I start to wonder: Is a running camp for teens really the biggest environmental threat confronting our public lands today? If so, we must have solved every other ecological concern on the face of the earth.
Maybe, as one of my co-workers suggested, the Steens Mountain Running Camp should relocate to Black Canyon or Monument Rock. There are plenty of great trails to be had in those wilderness areas, with challenging charred windfalls galore where runners could practice their high steps. And you can't say they'd be harming the environment. Those landscapes have been toasted beyond repair by lightning-caused fires. If they were "fragile" and delicate" at one time, they ain't anymore.
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