The rural-urban divide may be as real in Oregon as anywhere in the United States, and the existence of native predators like wolves, cougars, and bears is just one of many potential flashpoints. Portland’s Forest Park may not be wild enough for wolves, moose, and cowboys. Enterprise may not be big enough for the Blazers, ballet, and hipsters. Still, Oregon is big enough for all of those things, and whether hunter or hippy, some things do unite us all – or should.
Our state is particularly blessed to have an abundance of natural treasures. Many are part of a system of public lands managed for the benefit of all regardless of zip code, age, or recreational interest. My sister from Wisconsin adores Silver Falls, Clarno cowboys were welcome this weekend on Portland’s public waterfront to soak in the sounds of the Blues Festival, and last week I was lucky enough to be welcomed by some of the citizens of Wallowa County to enjoy some of the best their part of the state has to offer the world.
I’ve been fortunate in my lifetime to see some beautiful landscapes. From the Australian outback to the Grand Canyon, I’ve traveled to see some amazing places. I’ve also been blessed to live and work in great spots on the shores of Lake Michigan, the forests and deserts of Central Oregon, and the verdant hills of New Hampshire.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to return to New York City or see London or Tokyo. But whether I’ve lived in them or traveled for work or pleasure, the most inspiring places I’ve been haven’t been bustling cities full of skyscrapers, museums, and crowds, but big wild places full of towering trees, natural history, and wildlife. Oregon is lucky to have some of both. It’s why it’s easy to come to peace with a major irony in my life – most days, I jump on the bus, motor through the urban jungle and get to work behind a North Portland desk protecting Oregon’s pristine roadless wildlands.
As they are across the country, Oregon’s roadless lands are home to some of our nation’s greatest treasures. They are critical to the survival of some of our most endangered and charismatic wildlife. That’s certainly true for a species that until now had been making a quiet comeback in Oregon – gray wolves.
Wolves need two things to recover here in Oregon; a stable prey base and to not be shot at. Oregon’s roadless wildlands have the potential to provide both, and by protecting the species and their habitat, we can protect all the other species from frogs and aspen to elk and eagles whose fates – like ours –are intertwined.
Whether for recreation, clean drinking water, economics, or simply a sense of place, humans also need roadless wildlands. Part of my family has been in Oregon for over 100 years, but I finally made my way here about 5 years ago. In that time, I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to visit some pretty spectacular roadless areas. Finally, last week, I got to check off one of the top three on my wish list. From the Buckhorn outlook, I was able to see some of Oregon’s largest inventoried roadless areas – including the Imnaha roadless area in Northeast Oregon.
The area composes a significant part of the territory of Oregon’s lone breeding pair of wolves and the pack that represents nearly the entirety of Oregon’s confirmed wolf population. I’ve heard wolves howl in the Tetons, seen pups in the Boundary Waters, found their tracks in Canada’s boreal forest, and envisioned Aldo Leopold’s fateful hunt while visiting the canyon lands of Arizona. The wildlands tucked away in Northeast Oregon have some of the best of all four.
Whether for work or play, I know this will not be my last visit to the area. If you’re a person who values our states wildlands, wildlife, and waters, you owe it to yourself to go. From the Zumwalt prairie, the Wallowa Mountains rise up like a fortress. Barely visible distant peaks stir the imagination and invite adventure. Thankfully, unlike Jackson Hole, the landscape is dotted, not with subdivided McMansions and gated communities of the rich and famous, but with a pastoral landscape of ranches, B&B’s, and country getaways. After getting a bite to eat in Enterprise or taking the Gondola in Joseph, you don’t have to go far to feel far removed from any crowds.
The area is on the edge of Rocky Mountain moose country, and a small but growing population makes its home in the area’s lakes, rivers, and wetlands. This is also elk country and, though unlikely, a few folks even claim a grizzly or two has made its way across the Snake River through Hell’s Canyon – which is even deeper than the more-widely acclaimed Grand Canyon. For the most part, the area’s public lands are wild and pristine, but a few reminders of our ability to destroy our common Wallowa Road Signground - cow-bombed meadows, the occasional illegal ATV trail, and trash-filled fire pit abruptly reminded me of what sometimes seems to be inescapable conflict.
While most of the county is open to road building, development, private grazing, mining, and commercial logging, much of the landscape remains pristine. Some of these areas are rightfully protected as Wilderness, roadless, or recreation areas. However, as I heard someone once say – “without wolves, it just ain’t the west, and it sure isn’t wild”.
I stopped a few times to howl and waited for a response. With only 14 wolves in the entire state, it’s not surprising that it never came. Still sometimes it’s not what you see or hear, but what you know is out there that makes a backcountry experience. Though I didn’t see any moose or elk and never heard a howl, knowing it was a possibility made it even better. I did see some deer, met some great people, took some decent pictures, and enjoyed stunning views and some rare moments of solitude.
I didn’t really want to fire up my car and return to Portland so soon. But the knowledge that I’d return someday to sit around a campfire with friends and maybe hear the quiet broken by the howl of a wolf made the drive back to work easier. After all, I am blessed by the fact that for me “work” means working with other Oregonians to reach common ground and protect the things that make our state such a special place to live, work, and play.