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North America’s cold desert. The shrub-steppe. Most just call it sagebrush country. To some, that means drive-by country—scrubby-looking boondocks, freezing in winter, blazing with heat all summer, and best hurried through to get to someplace more welcoming. Someplace with more humans and fewer rattlesnakes. High, parched, spare, and unsheltered, it’s a tough environment to get a handle on and a tough one to live in, much less embrace. You might fall in love with it just the same when you discover how generous of life it can be, especially given the lean ingredients it has to work with—and the way it weaves its own beauty, even magic, from the wind and silence and solitude of vast open spaces.

In far southern Oregon, up at about 4,000 feet, the waves of a shallow inland sea roll within that wider sea of sagebrush where golden eagles set sail after jackrabbits and the pronghorns leave alkali dust in their wake. Abert Lake is the state’s third biggest natural body of water. Like the Great Salt Lake, it belongs to the Great Basin, whose streams and rivers have no outlet to an ocean and instead form landlocked pools loaded with dissolved minerals. Yet salty Abert’s edges teem with brine shrimp and foraging ducks, geese, avocets, and ring-billed gulls. The fresh waters of Chewaucan Marsh flowing into the southern end draw still more shorebirds and waterfowl. Hundreds of sandhill cranes arrive each Spring as well, their calls echoing off Abert Rim, a 2,000-foot-tall basalt cliff that walls off the valley to the East. Another steep-sided escarpment outlines the valley’s opposite edge, directly overlooking the Chewaucan wetlands. Though it isn’t as tall as Abert Rim, the crest of this upthrust block still offers views of more mountains, buttes, forests, vales, and sagebrush flats than your mind can absorb in one sitting. The escarpment also happens to define the northeastern portion of a property purchased in 1995 by a former aerospace engineer named Don Byrd. In 2007, Byrd gave the parcel to the Wildlife Land Trust®. Not just the escarpment; the entire property: 2,271 acres, rambling between 4,100 and 5,430 feet. This is the largest single donation of land that the Trust has received to date. According to a recent biological survey, the resulting Greenwood Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary contains habitat or potential habitat for four kinds of amphibians, 15 reptiles, 310 birds, and 76 different mammals, from mountain lions and mule deer to badgers and bats. Here, suddenly, is a whole kingdom of conservation opportunities, a gift almost beyond measure.

Byrd insists that he bought the tract mainly to keep himself active after retiring and moving from California to Oregon. He threw his energies into building a small cabin and storage barn and planting trees—nearly 4,400 of them over the years. When we first met in April, Byrd, eighty-one and looking as fit and keenly alert as the resident coyotes, announced: "I just got married again two weeks ago." Congratulations. His plan to stay in shape by doing projects on the property seemed to be working pretty darn well.

Once you get to know the man better, however, the other reason he bought the land comes to the fore: Having watched the rapid expansion of human activities in the West drive native animals away or confine them to scattered scraps of their previous homeland, Byrd wanted to guarantee at least some a chance to continue roaming free. What better place to start than out here in the Big Lonesome? After carefully researching various means of protecting private acreage, he arranged a conservation easement with the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy to permanently restrict certain kinds of development on his property. With the easement in place, he then began to think about handing ownership of the land itself over to a group willing and able to manage it specifically for wildlife. He set about screening a welter of organizations to find the one most compatible with his vision of a sanctuary.

During a morning hike with Byrd across Greenwood’s grounds, I carried a snack and a little water bottle. The ex-rocket scientist was lugging a five-gallon bucket and a shovel. Wherever he spotted Mediterranean sage, a velvety-leafed but noxious alien plant, the shovel bit into the soil, and the weed went in the bucket, joining non-native thistles he’d uprooted along the way. Back at the cabin, wasps wandered the inside of the windows. Byrd captured them carefully in a jar. He planned to set them free on the drive back to his town home in Lakeview, 28 miles south. As for any mice that made it into his barn, he would live-trap them for release at a distance, too. Byrd said that discovering the Trust was a lucky break for him. I think it was much more than luck that eventually led a person this humane and thoughtful to an arm of The Humane Society of the United States. Byrd and the Trust are a natural team—and will be for some time, since Byrd was granted lifetime use of the property for himself and his daughter.

After my host left, I stayed on at the cabin for a week, waking each morn to the gargled flute music of cranes and setting off afoot to explore—with the enthusiastic help of three dogs my family has accumulated from shelters—the Trust’s new sagebrush- scented sanctuary. There are more than a dozen species of sagebrush, by the way, and many of these come in several varieties, each with its own distinct pungence. Here, Wyoming big sage and mountain sage grow from the deeper, more fertile soils of gentle slopes. Such tall forms, together with the perennial grasses and herbs that flourish among them, are key to the survival of two of the region’s most imperiled creatures: sage grouse and the little known pygmy rabbit. Both can be found fairly close to the Trust’s holdings, and though they haven’t been documented within the sanctuary yet, there is habitat available to support them. "Every living thing has a purpose," Byrd told me. "We may not know what it is, but they have one. We should be helping other species, not putting their future in danger."

Where poorer soils prevail, black sage and low sage take over—sharing rocky sidehills with bitterbrush and juniper trees. Wild Klamath plum forms thickets on a few talus slopes below bluffs where hawks nest and turkey vultures ride the upsweep of winds. Ponderosa pine and the occasional white fir claim the cool north-facing terrain that hosts lingering snow, keeping the ground damp weeks after the sun bakes the moisture from other slopes. Clambering up to where the drifts still lay eight feet deep in the lee of one of the tallest ridgelines, I found myself blockaded by a dense mix of ponderosa, juniper, and mountain mahogany, an evergreen hardwood that usually grows only to shrub size but towered 30 feet in this locale. Bushy-tailed woodrats had piled up sticks, bark, and cones (plus the odd bone and deer antler) to fashion nests five feet high or more. Scores of these mound dwellings stood clustered among the tree trunks—a bushy-tailed urban complex.

This surprising array of plant and animal communities—a diverse habitat mosaic, as ecologists like to say—is part of what makes Greenwood special. Although encountering a woodland too thick to walk through was a first for me in Great Basin territory, I wasn’t surprised to see trees dominate some of the acreage’s heights. After all, the Fremont National Forest begins only a mile away to the south and west. More federal domain, overseen by the Lakeview district of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), lies between Greenwood’s western boundary and the national forest.

Ranchers lease grazing rights on both types of public land. Private lands adjoin Greenwood’s other borders, and they, too, are used to graze livestock. The whole countryside is classified as open range, which means that neighbors’ herds are entitled to dine and drink their way across your property unless you fence them out. Raising cattle is the economic mainstay of America’s outback and the essence of its traditional culture. In short, sagebrush country remains cowboy country, and that ain’t fixin’ to change anytime soon. Light grazing can actually benefit a range by stimulating plant growth and speeding up the recycling of nutrients. By contrast, heavy grazing in this cold desert leads all too easily to soil disturbance and erosion, replacement of perennial bunchgrasses and wildflowers by weedy exotics, and a general lowering of the land’s vitality. The Trust’s challenge is to find the right balance for the wildlife community while maintaining good relations with the local human community.

Put aside the romance and politics of cowboying and start with the basics: Wherever the gray-green of sagebrush colors the landscape, water is pure gold. It defines the life of the region. A mere 8 to 15 inches of the stuff falls annually as rain and snow. Whereas most of the local plants are adapted to this thirsty fact, others need the extra water associated with seeps, springs, and waterways to thrive. This riparian vegetation is arguably the most valuable component of the ecosystem. By most estimates, at least three-quarters of the resident animal species rely upon riparian habitats for vital activities such as breeding, nesting, early development, hunting, seeking shade, or simply quenching their thirst. The rub is that while those habitats make up barely two percent of sagebrush country, they receive roughly fifty percent of the grazing pressure from livestock and thus suffer the worst degradation. Byrd’s gift to the Trust includes three major springs, one of which continues to flow steadily throughout the hot months. That water wells up close to his cabin and the tumbled-down remains of an earlier homestead. A short way uphill, the slope cups a pond fed by melting snow and rainwater. It evaporates over summer, but rippled with mallard ducks, a noisy pair of Canada geese, and noisier Pacific chorus frogs during my visit. Though Byrd has always allowed cattle to move through his holdings, he fenced off 240 acres surrounding the pond and the permanent spring to protect the riparian zone and bolster the general area’s recovery from past overuse. One of the Trust’s first priorities will likely be to take similar measures around the other two springs, which have also been hard-hit by cattle and seen their original grass cover give way to non-native cheatgrass and medusahead rye—less palatable to wild and tame grazers alike.

Any repairs at the source will create benefits far afield. The springs, together with an ephemeral stream known as Juniper Creek, offer small but important contributions of water to Chewacaun Marsh, designated an Area of Critical Concern by the BLM.

To find the first of the unfenced springs, I followed the water uphill through a ravine for the better part of a mile. Sure enough, it led to another sagging old homestead. A meadow stretched around the ruins like a soggy lawn with a tangle of overgrown apple trees at one edge and aspen stands rooted in seeps on the hillside above. The site had an aura of being well lived-in and yet never tamed, for the signs of occupation included cougar prints in the mud, hoof marks from big mule deer bucks, three-toed patterns left by grouse and quail wandering from one wild rose hip to the next, and artifacts not just from Oregon’s frontier era but from many a century before. Bare sections of the ground shone with countless shards of obsidian left over from the making of arrowheads and cutting tools by Paiute (and possibly Shoshone and Modoc) Indian bands.

The other source of water appeared where aptly named Indian Springs Ridge tapered down onto a plateau near the westernmost reach of the property. There, I came upon a suite of sodden meadows lush with grasses and rushes and stippled by antelope hoofs. More water, more wildlife, more pieces of deep black obsidian worked by generations of Native Americans. Once I developed an eye for the dark glimmer of this volcanic glass, I started to find chips all over the property, by every seep and shadowed grove, along every promontory—the same places you and I and anyone else past or present would choose to linger. We all have the same ageless instincts guiding us to settings that just seem right.

In the final analysis—no, with nature there is no final analysis. Greenwood was shaped by dynamic geological and biological forces and continues to be molded by them today. It is an always changing landscape connected to other systems forever in flux. With good fortune and good planning, the Trust can maintain those connections for the wide-roaming species and perhaps even strengthen them through partnerships with ranch owners and the agencies in charge of neighboring public lands. Beyond that, the Trust could one day use the sanctuary as a learning center for schoolchildren and teachers, other conservation groups, interns, birders, and—who knows?—maybe cowpunchers looking for a little fresh perspective. It’s too soon to say what lies in store for this remarkable piece of the world that Don Byrd acquired and passed on to those he knew could be trusted to care for it. You don’t want to get too carried away with possibilities out here; sagebrush country is bound to offer some harsh reality checks. Yet the vistas are so huge and free-feeling, you can’t help dreaming the wildest dreams.

 

Douglas H. Chadwick, a Montana-based wildlife biologist, has written hundreds of articles and 10 books on natural history and conservation. He is also a founding board member of Vital Ground, a non-profit land trust that protects habitat for the grizzly bear, an umbrella species whose huge range includes those of many other wild creatures. As an unpaid volunteer with the Glacier Wolverine Project, he makes exactly the same wages as the animals do.

 

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