Burns, Oregon- A Retrospective

IMG_2686 On the road near Independence Rock (WY).

It’s been just over a month now since I left Burns, Oregon. Sometimes one needs time and separation to get a proper perspective on past experiences, so it may be that my impression of Burns will change with time. Regardless, as I look back, there are a few key things that I think will be important for me going forward.

1) People. This is probably the go-to answer to the question of what is most important out of any experience. But I don’t think that makes it too cliche. It was easy to connect with my 3 fellow interns, especially since we were all the same age, worked and lived in the same place, hailed from generally suburban areas, and had all just graduated from college. It was sometimes harder to connect with people at work who were mostly older than me, disagreed with most of my political views, shared a much more rural background, and mostly disliked visiting cities let alone living near them. However, when you spend 10 hour days in a pickup truck in the hot, dry sagebrush with someone, there is plenty of time to talk about and get over differences. And I think that, for me, coming from a bastion of urban liberalism, it was vitally important to hear a different side of the story.

IMG_2300 Culture

2) Systems. For an ecologist like myself, each new place is a new system, with similarities and differences to other systems. This was the third major system in which I have had the privilege to do fieldwork, and it spreads my understanding over a larger swath of the country. To the eastern coastal ecosystems and the Missouri forests and glades, I can add the vast sagebrush steppe system to my list. In a way, its fire suppression problem is similar to the problem of juniper encroachment in Missouri glades, however its current problems surrounding wildfire and invasive species are unlike any I have seen before.

IMG_2284 The sagebrush steppe

3) Land. This internship gave me the chance to drive cross country twice- once from St. Louis, MO to Burns, OR and once from Burns, OR to Lexington, MA. These two trips took me through at least 17 different states, and my travels during the internship took me to two more; 5 were states I had never been to before. In all, the two cross country trips plus the internship allowed me to visit (if I’m not forgetting any) 6 national parks, 4 national monuments, 2 national historic parks, and many national forests, wilderness areas, BLM lands, and scenic areas. The amount of federally owned land in the US is enormous, far more than I realized at the beginning of the internship. The opportunity to see so much of it up close and in person was more than most people get. I can’t help but hope to spend more time traveling the country in the future.

IMG_2583The moon at sunset, Crater Lake National Park

So that’s it in a nutshell, whatever that means, but of course it was so much more… I hope some of the people I met in Burns enjoyed meeting a few outsiders, and perhaps learned something from conversing with someone so different from themselves.


For the last couple of months, our job has focused somewhat more on riparian monitoring as opposed to only post-fire rangeland monitoring. The word riparian describes the areas along the edge of a stream or river. Besides being a refreshing change of pace, riparian monitoring at this time of year is excellent because the trees that grow along stream banks are changing color dramatically.

Grass is Greener on the Other Side

We hiked up and down a couple of hills, looking for the stream on which we were supposed to do photo monitoring. The final descent was fairly steep and covered in brush, so we were relieved to reach the open area around the stream. We were taking our photos near a fence that ran across the stream- lining up all the angles just right so they would be comparable to photos from past years, when we noticed that everything was different on the other side of the fence. The side we were on had been grazed recently and all the grass was close cropped. The healthy sedge rush community had been replaced with a short grass and clover community. The other side of the fence had not been grazed, and the sedges and rushes looked robust. The problem with cows is that they cluster together in riparian areas and use them heavily, resulting in very high impact to these fragile areas, as opposed to the rest of the rangeland.

IMG_2488                      IMG_2487

Our side of the fence                                                 The other side of the fence

Horses Come to Water

While hiking along a stream and taking photos for our photo monitoring plots, we were struck by the sight of a band of wild horses just across the stream. They seemed to pose there for us, a little curious, maybe. Usually, we only see wild horses from the truck. The BLM spends tens of millions of dollars on these wild horses from breeding them, to gathering them, to housing and feeding the gathered horses, and even hauling feed and water out to the ones remaining in the wild to make sure they do not starve. It makes sense that many BLM workers dislike the wild horses, especially since they are more accurately feral horses- escaped beasts from European settlers. Strangely though, several groups feel very strongly about preserving the wild horses, forcing the BLM to leave them wild, while also maintaining and feeding the herd so they stay healthy. Despite this animosity, I can’t help but enjoy watching them sometimes.IMG_2531                 IMG_2535

The wild (feral) horses


We were on a mission to retrieve temperature probes from along a stream and we had several miles to hike that day. I was walking in front of the group of four interns, crossing a dense patch of cheat grass, when I heard the girl behind me yell and jump back. She had been a few steps behind me. “Snake!” Sure enough, as I turned around, a saw a young looking rattlesnake slithering out of the path. I had just walked right over it, and it hadn’t even rattled. It was the first rattlesnake I had seen on the job, and only the second since coming to Oregon. I never intended to come that close to a rattlesnake in the field, but fortunately the little guy was too cold and sleepy to bite!


My rattlesnake!


If there’s one thing about this internship that I wasn’t quite expecting, it’s the driving. Harney county is the largest county in Oregon in terms of area, and much of the land is owned by the BLM. Driving to field sites takes hours upon hours on black top, gravel, dirt, and rocks. The single activity I have done the most this summer is to drive or ride in a pickup truck which is the single most valuable tool I use to get field work done.


The last apple:

Back during the first week, we had finished field work for the day. There was still a little bit of time before we had to head back, so some of the guys we work with were driving us out to see Krumbo Reservoir. I had been sitting in the truck for what seemed like forever. I had a little motion sickness, but felt like I could handle it. Then we turned down a slightly bumpy and curvy gravel road that led down to the reservoir. By the time we reached our destination, I was about dying and ran to the bathroom to lose the better part of my lunch.

Right before we were about to go back, I ran over to a trash can just to make sure I was done. When we climbed in the truck to head back, Kyle asked if I was sick. I said it was just motion sickness. He looked kind of concerned and said we were going to be doing a lot more driving this summer and I should get some medicine or something. He asked if it would help if I drove, and he let me drive the rig home.

I knew my mistake though. While they aren’t solely to blame, apples generally make me car sick for whatever reason. So now I eat oranges at lunch. That was the last day I brought an apple.


Learning to navigate in Harney county was a bit difficult for me at first. The dirt roads all looked the same, and the rolling hills of grass and sage looked the same. When giving directions, my boss would use phrases like “you can’t miss it”. Needless to say, the four of us interns all missed that spot the first time and started driving to Nevada. Even the guys who weren’t new had to backtrack occasionally when seeking out our field sites.

Into this sea of navigational troubles walked Randy. Randy, a salt-and-peppered fifty-something was born and raised here in Burns. Randy spent much of his life exploring the backroads of Harney County, and has been driving to BLM field sites for five years now.


Randy drives through a herd of cattle


A coyote watches us stop for some typical scenery

ArcGIS and the Disappearing Roads:

ArcGIS, the most prominent program for mapping and geographic analysis is all the rage these days. There is even a version of the program called ArcPad that is made for use on a tablet. We have ArcPad on our fancy Trimble tablet GPS units, and are therefore able to track out position relative to the expansive network of back roads without too much difficulty. You would think it’s impossible to get lost with this technology.

This past week, we were assigned to mark sagebrush seedling establishment plots in several specific patches in the Miller Homestead Fire region. We set out with a map, a GPS, and Randy. We were making good time and had gotten three sites marked when we hit a lovely stretch of road heading for the fourth site. The road curved up and over a patch of rim rock, and was entirely made of rocks. At one point, I had to get out and roll a particularly large rock out of the way, and another time we went up a stair of rock that was larger than an average stair. Both sides of the road were lined with more rocks sticking out and threatening to rip up our tires. And that was the site we made it to. Randy just gritted his teeth and drove. We got back to the office an hour late that day. Randy looked at the tires and pointed out where a chunk of rubber had been gouged out of their thick tread. “I thought these tires were new; didn’t you get them a couple of weeks back?”  “Well they ain’t new any more.”

The sites we didn’t make it to came the second day. We came to an intersection and the road we needed to take completely disappeared. There was another road present which was not on the map and went off in a different direction. This happened again on the third day. While GPS and ArcGIS are wonderful technologies, they have limited usefulness without regular updating. Even when a map has a road drawn on it, that doesn’t make the road a reality. Navigation would also be easier if a measure of road roughness were included on the map.

Controlling Wildfire: Forethought and Afterthought



The ancient Greek story of the Gift of Fire is often viewed as literature’s most archetypical double-edged sword. As the story goes, the Greek god Prometheus brought the fire of the gods down off of Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind. Prometheus was duly punished by the great god Zeus by being chained to a rock to have his liver eaten out by a large eagle. However, Zeus could not take the fire back from humans. While fire was a great and useful technology as Prometheus had hoped, it was also extremely dangerous to its human masters, since it could bring light and heat, but also death and destruction. 


I’ll never forget the sight of my first wildfire. It was July 4th, and I was at a party on a hill overlooking the small town of Burns, OR. We were eating delicious blueberry cobbler and watching the boys next door shoot off a regular arsenal of fireworks. It was getting late, and we were getting ready to leave when someone exclaimed that there was a fire. All at once, everyone was up and straining to see the orange glow and when I saw it, I thought the town was done for. It danced eerily all along the top of a long ridge just out of town, close to the BLM office where I work. It looked huge and out of control. Little did I know how tiny it was.

The fire was out by the next morning, and I was informed that it had only burned a couple hundred acres. By contrast, the Miller Homestead Fire, whose aftermath we have spent a lot of time monitoring, burned more than 160,000 acres before it was brought under control. In an area with such large fires, management necessarily occurs on a huge scale. Tens of thousands of acres are reseeded with various mixes of seed dominated by the non-native yet potentially useful crested wheatgrass. Despite the valiant Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation (ES&R) efforts, thousands of acres are also home to vast swaths of invasive annual grasses, primarily cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and medusa head rye (Taeniatherum caput-medusae).

Before arriving in the west, I had learned something about fire ecology in the midwest, specifically fire dependent Ozark Glades. These patchy south facing slopes characterized by naturally thin soils are hosts to a wide variety of endemic plants and animals. Historically these areas were kept free of eastern red ceder (Juniperus virginiana) by regular fires. Fire suppression by white settlers eventually resulted in invasion of Ozark Glades by eastern red cedar which threatens to destroy almost all instances of this unique ecosystem.

Funnily enough, when I was talking to one of the range conservationists I learned that fire suppression in the US is best personified by a cartoon character. Smoky the Bear first appeared in 1944 in an advertising campaign to educate the public about the dangers of wildfire. His slogan, “Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires” urged people to avoid providing a source of ignition for wildfires, and ushered in an age of fire repression in America. The attitude that spawned these advertisements, the attitude that wildfire was undeniably bad, accompanied an unprecedented suppression of natural fires across the country. This policy resulted in the rapid accumulation of juniper trees (Juniperus occidentalis), brush, and other fuels, which eventually led to devastating fires far worse than those the policy had tried to prevent.

While returning fire to the ecosystem on a regular schedule would seem to be a logical solution, the results of fire suppression are playing out on a changed and modern stage, covered in invasive annual grasses. While the solution to the invading junipers is to burn, burning leaves open spaces for invasive annual grasses to recruit. Presence of these grasses increases fire intensity because they are completely dry during the summer fire season, unlike perennial grasses. The higher fire intensity results in more death of desirable perennials, increasing the population of invasive annual grasses. Controlled burns might help prevent larger fires, but such projects are prohibitively expensive for such a large amount of land. Increased cattle grazing decreases fuel loads which helps slow fires, but also provides disturbance that invasive annual grasses need to spread. Getting cows to graze on the invasive annual grasses is nearly impossible, as they are only palatable for a few weeks annually, and are low in nutrients. Juniper trees can be chopped down, but this too is prohibitively expensive.

Thus we come to an impasse. Sagebrush steppe covers a huge area of the US, and much of this area is threatened by fire and by lack of fire. People have their favorite solutions to the predicament, and each solution has its problems. But as the storms blow over the steppe, billowing clouds punctuated with bolts of fire-starting lightning, the fires rage on and the sage grouse populations fall steadily. Maybe research will come up with a solution. Maybe management will be enough to minimize presence of invasive annual grasses. Maybe someday we humans will learn to better control the gift of fire, but until then, it will remain one of nature’s greatest double edged swords.



Impression Sagebrush

Impression Sunrise:


Impression Sunrise (Impression, Soleil Levant), created by Claude Monet in 1874, is one of the most important works in the impressionist movement. The contrast of the diminutive, dark colored fishing boats against the dominant, red-orange hued sunrise conveys peace and tranquility. In the background, the soft gray silhouettes of factory smoke stacks, construction machines, and large ships are almost comforting. In the midst of all the boom of construction in France following the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871), this busy port of Le Havre may have symbolized the renewed power of France to Monet. But there is more than one way to view to heavy industrialization, and neither is generally that great for the fishermen.

And now-
Impression Sagebrush:

Traveling out here, I drove cross country with my mom all the way from Saint Louis, Missouri to the tiny town of Burns, Oregon. It was the longest road trip I’ve ever been on. What struck me the most was how much of this country is miles upon miles of highway connecting little towns to little towns, the green grasslands blending into dark mountains blending into red rocks blending into gray-green sagebrush. It occurred to me on that trip that this is the stuff America is made of.

Compared with my Massachusetts hometown of Lexington and my erstwhile home of St. Louis, the scenery around Burns is incredible. Here in Harney County, one might crest a hill only to be confronted with a towering butte, or a range of snow crested peaks. It seems that every tiny dirt road has a view of expansive gray-green slopes, or the shimmering tan flat of desert. You might say it’s majestic.


The people of Burns are endlessly friendly and helpful to us newcomer interns. Several have invited the four of us into their homes, a couple have introduced us to other young people in the area, and some have invited us to fish and shoot with them. Many people have recommended their favorite activities to us. One night at a fiddle music festival, we were even given waltzing lessons, and another time we were welcomed with rocky mountain oysters at a cattle branding. Yes, many people have different world views from us city folk, but that has never dampened their honesty and hospitality.IMG_1901

One of the first things that surprised me about the BLM came up in my first conversation with my mentor, Caryn. During the interview process, she told me that the BLM was hoping that the sage grouse would not be federally listed as a threatened species. At first I was shocked, since I had expected that people would want to protect a species whose population has seen such a precipitous decline in the recent past. On second thought, this position makes sense since it would be difficult to coordinate protection of the sage grouse according to the endangered species act with the many ranchers who use BLM land.

When I arrived in Burns and started work however, it seemed not only that the BLM did not want the sage grouse to be federally listed, but many individuals actually saw the potential listing of the sage grouse as a threat to the ranching lifestyle that dominates the county. They believe that sage grouse are in decline for three main reasons: 1) fire due to drought, 2) invasive annuals such as cheat grass, and 3) encroachment into sagebrush by western juniper trees (Juniperus occidentalis). All three of these things also pose challenges to their ability to raise cattle.

Later, when I was hiking in the Steens Mountains with friends, we happened to meet a man who had helped write the petition to federally list the sage grouse. He was upset when we informed him that the BLM was still seeding burned areas with crested wheat-grass (Agropyron cristatum), a non-native grass that provides good forage for cattle. In his view, the cattle ranching industry was the one threatening the sage grouse in three main ways: 1) overgrazing grass so that it provides no cover, 2) allowing raven populations to overwinter on dead cows causing an increase in ravens which then prey on sage grouse, and 3) degrading water sources by trampling.IMG_1960_2

Clearly there are at least two sides to the sage grouse issue, and they seem to come to a head over the issue of ranching and cows. Cows are highly valued and represent a way of life in Harney County. In fact, even though many cows stand in the road, anyone who hits a cow with a car must pay for it. Ranchers and those who work closely with them at the BLM see the importance of ranching in the community. These people live lives that seem to come out of an old western, complete with brandings, rodeos, cowboys, and roundups. Other people see cattle ranching as an ongoing problem that is only getting worse as the high population of cattle (over 100,000 in the county compared to about 7,000 people) degrades the land over time. Some people even argue that with their use of government land and government subsidies, ranchers are all essentially “living on welfare”.IMG_1903

Beyond the seemingly timeless beauty of Harney County’s rich culture set against its stunning landscape, there lies a conflict between cows and birds, or maybe just between two groups of people. Hopefully, the large amount of funding currently going towards sage grouse research can find why the sage grouse is really declining and how the decline can be stopped while cooperating with ranchers, because the sage grouse is being considered for federal protection over the next few years. The clock is ticking.