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'Fence Pulling' Becomes a Wilderness Pastime

There's a waiting list of volunteers to take down the barbed wire that crisscrosses an Oregon region designated by law as cow-free public land.

November 06, 2005|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

FIELDS, Ore. — If you had wanted to visit with John Witzel one recent warm and cloudless day, you would have driven 20 miles outside town, along a dusty ranch road here in the high desert of southeastern Oregon, then jumped on a horse.

You would have ridden five miles through the bull thistle cactus, juniper trees and lupin that dot the brown hills.

Once you got to Straw Hat Pass and let your horse have a drink at Wildhorse Creek, you would have traveled up a rust-colored canyon and come upon Witzel, a sinewy man wearing jeans, chaps and a purple cowboy shirt. He stood firmly, his arms circling as he cranked a large aluminum spool, and his face was dripping sweat.

Witzel looked as if he were trying to land a giant fish -- though he was reeling in a 100-foot strand of rusty barbed-wire fence.

Here in the nation's first officially designated "cow-free wilderness," Witzel and dozens of other volunteers have been using Witzel's invention, a non-mechanized roller, to remove mile after mile of fencing, not far from the border with Nevada.

Many of the fences date back nearly a century, to an era of homesteaders and free cattle-grazing on federal land.

Environmental groups favor taking down the fences because, they say, doing so would restore the land to a more natural state. With ranching no longer allowed in the wilderness here, but with no federal funds available for fence removal, the job of taking down the barbed wire has fallen to the volunteers -- as well as the horses, mules and llamas that carry the equipment, which by law must be non-mechanized, and that pack out the tight coils of old wire.

Many of these volunteers say they take tremendous satisfaction from "fence pulling," as they call it, describing it as an important step toward making the land a true wilderness.

"It's a small thing, and it's hard work, but it's something very tangible you can do," said Erik Westerholm, 46, a marketing specialist from Eugene, Ore., who has volunteered on a dozen fence pulls in the last three years.

"It's a rush, actually, when you see a half-dozen pronghorn antelope cruising through an area where, earlier that day, there was a fence," said Westerholm, who drove six hours from Eugene to help.

"That's enough of a payment right there."

A fence, said Stephen Gibbs, 52, a volunteer from the Portland suburbs, is "a huge statement that man is here and trying to control things. Taking it out says the opposite."

When Congress passed the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act five years ago, it finalized a complicated land swap that turned some land over to ranchers, but also set aside 175,000 acres of public land in the area as protected wilderness.

The unusual cow-free wilderness designation was the result of "a lot of negotiations between ranchers and environmental groups," said John Neeling, wilderness specialist for the area, which is overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Under the 1964 Wilderness Act, grazing is generally allowed on federal wilderness land where feasible.

The land, known as the Steens, is in a magnificent stretch of glacially carved escarpments, steppes and canyons, just south of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a flyway for migratory birds, including trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes.

In a reflection of the stormy weather here, settlers called one stream the Donner und Blitzen River -- German for thunder and lightning.

Much of the area had been fenced -- in fact, homesteading laws required that settlers who wanted to raise cattle had to fence the property.

Now that the fences can come down, an unusual coalition of local ranchers and outside environmental groups has stepped in to do the work.

The Oregon Natural Desert Assn., the Sierra Club and Wilderness Volunteers are three such organizations that have organized fence-pulling trips, which range from one to five days.

Many volunteers say removing even a single strand of barbed wire is satisfying.

"I think we need to clean up our collective messes," said Kristi Mergenthaler, 37, a botanist from the Medford, Ore., area, who traveled here with her 14-year-old son, Taro Shido, during the summer for a two-day fence pull in the Steens.

"I mean we, as humanity," said Mergenthaler. "It's not like I put the fence up or anything, but I feel a responsibility to help take it down."

Many ranchers here would take some offense to the notion that a fence amounts to a mess. But with the wilderness deal made and the rusty old fences no longer needed, several ranchers have done their part to help take them out, if a bit bemusedly as they observe urbanites struggle with the task. (Pulling a fence is not only hard work, it carries an occupational hazard from the barbs: Being up-to-date on a tetanus shot is highly advised.)

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