FOR more than 120 years, ranchers have driven their cattle from the flat desert of southeastern Oregon up into the meadows and canyons of the Trout Creek Mountains for summer grazing.
There have been drought years and bitter winters, fortunes have been made and lost, but the tradition has continued through as many as six generations. Today the herd at the White Horse Ranch, which was part of one of the biggest cattle empires in the West, still carries the ``Double H'' brand John Devine designed in 1869.
But in recent years, ranching in this northern part of the Great Basin has come up against a new environmental ethic, as it has all over the West. Things like endangered-species protection and ``ecosystem management'' raise doubts about whether an economy and a way of life can survive.
``In the 1880s, this was all cow forage,'' says Jim May, district manager of the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees grazing allotments on the federal land that makes up most of the ranches around here. ``But now we're wanting wilderness, viewsheds, better watersheds, a diversity of species.''
``These people are absolutely scared to death,'' Mr. May adds. ``Change is coming - the question is, how fast will it take place?''
Six years ago, a group of ranchers, environmentalists, and government-agency officials came together to see if they could head off the kind of ``train wreck'' (as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt calls it) that had characterized so many environmental battles in natural resource areas.
They called themselves the ``Trout Creek Mountain Working Group,'' and their focus was on habitat for the Lahontan cutthroat trout, which had been designated ``threatened'' under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Under the law, once a declining species like the cutthroat is listed, officials must develop a plan to ensure its recovery. In this area, that means limiting the impact of cattle who head for the stream banks for forage.
Without control, cows can trample the banks causing erosion, foul the waters, mess up the gravel beds where fish spawn, and eat away the tasty willows and aspen that provide shade necessary to maintain proper water temperature for fish habitat. And in many places, this has happened.
``A lot of this land out here is not shining,'' May says. ``It's not a testament to man's stewardship of the land.''
Just getting the various representatives together as a working group to seek consensus was an accomplishment. BLM land managers had been jerked back and forth by conflicting political pressures from Washington, and they were frequently reassigned before trust with local people could build. Meanwhile, both ranch groups and environmentalists had threatened to sue over government policies and implementation.
``This diverse a group was no Sunday-school picnic,'' rancher Doc Hatfield says. ``If anybody was completely comfortable, they didn't understand the situation.''
Although faces changed, the group stayed together at about two or three dozen members. And over time and after many meetings (some heated) at which everyone had his or her say, some measure of trust began to develop.
Eventually ranchers agreed to ``rest'' the most sensitive parts of the watershed by removing about 3,000 head of cattle for a three-year period. Then, with the agreement of the BLM and environmentalists in the working group, some cattle were allowed to return to parts of the area for controlled grazing in the late spring of 1992.
Has this experiment in ecosystem management worked? Have the riparian areas recovered from overgrazing to the point where the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout are regaining healthy habitat? Should alternating periods of grazing and rest continue?
For two days recently, members of the working group gathered with some outside observers to check the status of the land, a stark and beautiful place where wildlife includes cougar, bobcats, coyotes, golden eagles, rattlesnakes, mule deer, kestrels, badgers, Lazuli buntings, and bighorn sheep.
Jounced and jostled over the rough landscape in heavy BLM vehicles, they visited the riparian areas now shared by both cutthroat trout and cattle. Among the group were biologists, hydrologists, and BLM range conservationists.
The consensus is that definite improvement has occurred, despite several years of drought, which have meant water levels lower than normal.
Willows, aspen, wild rose, and mountain mahogany are regenerating. At the upper portion of Little Whitehorse Creek, the dark forms of Lahontan cutthroat trout could be seen slipping under grassy banks.
``We had quite a distance to go with these streams, but improvement is right on track and in some cases better than we could have expected given the climatic conditions we've had,'' said US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ron Rhew, who is responsible for endangered-species programs on the ground and therefore very important to decisions about whether grazing should continue.
``We're getting functioning systems back,'' he said. ``As far as we're concerned, this system is in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.''
Environmentalists were cautiously optimistic. ``It needs some work, but there's no question that there's been some conscientious management,'' said Dan Heinz of Reno, Nev., who works with the Montana-based group American Wildlands. ``My optimism needed a good charge, and I got it on this trip.''
``Everything I've seen so far today is very, very good,'' said Monty Montgomery of the Izzak Walton League, a conservation organization.
Others were more cautious.
``The looks of this place have changed dramatically since I was last here,'' said Jim Myron of the environmental group Oregon Trout. He was referring to an area of Little Whitehorse Creek called ``the pole patch,'' where some grazing was allowed this year after five years of rest. ``But the recovery rate is less than I would have hoped for if our goal is survival of fish. It's still not in proper functioning condition as a wetland.''
Along one particularly damaged area of the creek an ``exclosure'' had been built in 1991 to keep cattle out. But 39 cows broke through the fence for three days earlier this year, and that set back willow regrowth by about a year.
``There's an upward trend, but it's still functioning at risk,'' said BLM hydrologist Jack Wenderoth. ``It could get worse quickly. Could it get better quickly? Probably not. It's harder to go up than go down.''
The economic impact
Whether the economic situation for the ranchers will go up or down is a big question as well.
Taking cattle off the mountain for three years and then limiting summer grazing here has meant increased costs and lower profits. It meant hauling a lot of water. It meant that calves fed on drier bunch grass at the 4,000- to 5,000-foot level instead of the greener, more nutritious meadow grass at the 6,000- to 8,000-foot level; they weighed on average 100 pounds less at weaning. Smaller calves mean less income.
``We've had to move 1,000 cows to other places,'' said Britt Lay, manager of the White Horse Ranch. ``That's cut our profit margin 15 percent.''
``I don't think anybody wants to abuse what you'll have to use the next year,'' he added. ``But when it becomes uneconomical, you've got to go. That's the bottom ticket.''
As the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group continues its efforts, it has begun to get national recognition. It has been cited by the American Fisheries Society (a group of professional fish biologists) for its work to improve fish habitat.
BLM acting director Mike Dombeck flew out from Washington, D.C., to be part of the recent gathering in the Trout Creek Mountains. He presented each of the working-group members with the annual ``Director's Riparian Stewardship Award.''
``Thank you for being a shining example of what I hope catches on all over the West,'' he said. ``This group is really on the right track in dealing with what could have been a very painful and dangerous endangered-species situation.''
``It doesn't matter if you're a rancher or an environmentalist,'' Dr. Dombeck said. ``The bottom line of success or failure is the health of the land.''
This is the goal of range-reform proposals now being considered by Interior Secretary Babbitt and other government officials.
At the end of the tour around the Trout Creek Mountains, the group gathered into a circle near the upper reaches of Little Whitehorse Creek to share impressions of the day. Many thoughtful comments expressed hope and concern about whether ranching and its traditions could continue for another century here.
``It seems a little bit precarious, both on the environmental end and on the economic end,'' observed Mark Liverman of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, echoing a general feeling.
But as he considered what he had learned this day, BLM wildlife biologist Al Bammann thought of something Aldo Leopold wrote in his nature classic ``A Sand County Almanac,'' and it seemed appropriate. Paraphrasing the author, he said, ``I'm encouraged that we have a group that's thinking like a mountain.''