Bruce Reichert, Host:
To settlers on the Oregon Trail, the desert was a wasteland, an obstacle to cross as quickly as possible.
Others found a land of intricate beauty.
Some viewed the desert as a land of opportunity, a place to make their fortune.
Still others found a land of adventure, a place to test their skills against Mother Nature.
Outdoor Idaho examines these different, and sometimes conflicting views of the desert as we explore this arid landscape.
So, which is it, a land of intricate beauty or a wasteland just waiting for the hand of man to make it productive?
Hi, I'm Bruce Reichert. The desert, you know it's a land of extremes, bitter cold in the winter, blistering hot in the summer, a place where life itself has evolved to survive even the harshest of conditions.
Water, or rather the lack of it defines the desert - an arid swath of land stretching across a handful of Western states.
In an average year, only a few inches of rain fall, and all life struggles to conserve the precious fluid.
Everywhere there are grim reminders of the harshness of the land, even in the mountains, named the Owyhees in honor of a lost group of Hawaiian fur trappers.
In the spring the desert comes alive. The melting snow, the falling rain, drop by drop, they form rivers and streams.
As the water rushes to the sea it creates ribbons of green in a land of reds and browns. The desert explodes with life.
All too soon, though, the blistering heat returns. The land dries. The streams slow to a trickle. Life congregates around tiny springs. As the water bubbles up from the ground, it creates an oasis in a dry land.
Life is sustained for yet another year.
The desert is a vast landscape of rock walls of weathered rhyolite, where beauty lies around the next bend.
Or sometimes, just under the surface.
Outside Shoshone, Idaho, a group of cavers explores a lava tube named Jawdropper.
Vernon Ray, Caver:
It's such a large cave and it impressed us so much that I named it Jawdropper because when people see something really exciting and unexpected, you know, their jaw drops to the floor and that's how it got its name.
David Kesner, Caver:
The lava flowing out of a volcano seeks the low spots like a river does, the valleys and the low spots, and flows along. As it flows, the outside crust cools while it is still flowing inside. The eruption will stop and the lava liquid inside will flow out leaving a hollow tube behind. And that's what we have here. We're actually inside the hollow tube of where the lava was flowing out of the volcano.
What we've got in this room is formations that we call cave coral. By taking the helmet off you're not going to be damaging the formations as you come through. This is really pretty rare and unique for lava tubes. There's not a whole lot that do have secondary mineral formations in them. And as you can see in this room, anything that isn't black, is secondary mineral deposits. So pretty much the entire floor, ceiling, and wall in this room is covered with this cave coral.
It is a world far different from the one just 50 feet above.
It's a natural resource. Caves, once they are destroyed, they will really never be back to their pristine form. They're very, very delicate. And this cave here, we've protected it and you will not see any graffiti in it and all the formations and all the beauty inside of it is kept intact for my children and my children's children to come here and see this.
Some say the desert itself is a natural resource, deserving national park status in recognition of its beauty.
It is a landscape painted in a thousand shades of red and brown.
It is a land of unique geological formations. Rocks from the basement of time, stacked like ancient Greek columns.
A land where blowing winds create intricate patterns in sand dunes as tall as buildings.
A land of subtle beauty.
To emigrants on the Oregon Trail, the desert was a "Godforsaken place," an obstacle to cross quickly while on their way to the greener landscapes of the coast.
But to others, the desert was home. Where settlers saw a wasteland, Shoshone and Paiute Indians found a land of plenty.
Corbin Harney, Shoshone Indian:
They know the land, they understand the land, where the water is, where, you know, a certain kind of food is. There are a lot of things out here that's to eat. The sagebrush right today where we're at, where them little tiny balls on some of them sagebrush, that's what they used to make soup out of.
Others came to the desert to find their fortune.
In 1863, they did, discovering gold and silver in the sagebrush covered hills. Boom towns like Silver City sprouted, filled with miners hoping to strike it rich. Some did. Others made their riches catering to the fortune seekers.
For a time, Silver City thrived. But before long, the boom went bust and the desert reclaimed its peace.
Today, the landscape that early settlers found forbidding, other find intriguing.
At the City of Rocks, poet William Studebaker finds inspiration in the weathered rocks.
William Studebaker, Poet:
Here the desert rises to its own height. In winter, high enough for snow. In summer, too low for rain. This is a place you can't memorize. Here it is easiest to think with the eyes closed. This is a place without appointment. No one expects you today or tomorrow. Even the bees, asleep in God's pocket keep no schedule. The horizon swings open like a shadow hinged to its own reflection to a place deep inside of you, half dark, half light. This is real only to experience. And your breath, a small map of where you are going, puffs out ahead of you.
There is a kind of consciousness that I think is in the landscape and it's in concentration in certain locations like the City of Rocks. There seems to be an abundance of consciousness that I'm trying to translate that conscious into words and into my languages and then bring that back out to people through poetry who don't have the opportunity to come here or who don't respond to that consciousness.
It's an area that the emigrants wanted to jump. And they did effectively jump it. It wasn't settled. We're kind of a backlash from the coast and so we have an opportunity here, because of the way the emigrants felt about this region, to still preserve a lot of it that would have otherwise been private land and exploited by now. So the Great Basin, the Intermountain West, is probably what's left of the West in terms of land.
The wide open spaces which protected the desert so well in the past, are no match for modern man.
Every day dozens of jets take off from Mountain Home Air Force Base. Within minutes they reach supersonic speeds as they head to the nearby Saylor Creek Training Range.
But the range, built during World War II, is inadequate for today's aircraft and military tactics. So the Air Force wants to expand the training range by adding new target areas and simulated threats to challenge the pilots.
Lt. Col. Ken Byrd, Mountain Home Air Force Base:
When we get to that training level, now we're simulating combat as well as we can and now the survival rate has gone up tremendously. And we see that throughout history when we built the Red Flag Training Complex down at Nellis. Once we got our people going through that we learned after the Vietnam War that if we don't train like we're going to fight, then we're not going to survive.
Opponents worry about the effect of the training range on other uses like hiking and hunting.
Roger Singer, Sierra Club:
The recreation here is unique to the rest of the country. This is one of the largest unprotected roadless areas found in the lower 48 states. And it's very easy to find a place out here that you can get away from everything. Once those planes start flying overhead and the low level flights with the supersonic flights come in, you've lost that experience.
Opponents argue that the Air Force has other options, including training in other states. But the Air Force says the time spent flying to distant ranges is time that could be spent training.
Lt. Col. Jay Stevenson, Idaho Air National Guard:
We would never say we we're not going to do that, because we do. There is some training that is gained by picking the package up and taking it a long ways and doing that first strike and coming back. But to do that day in and day out is really not very efficient.
Chuck Pezeshki, Kayaker:
The issue is not one of whether we'll have trained pilots or not. The issue is one of restraint. It is going to take some self- restraint on our part to decide that we are going to save some of these place. You know, we want to save them for our children, we want to save them because they have intrinsic value in themselves. And we have bombing ranges, you know. But we only have one Jarbidge and Bruneau Canyon.
That anyone can find value in this land is surprising to some.
For them, their only exposure to the desert is a 70 mile an hour glimpse from the highway.
But long before the asphalt carved its way across the desert, adventurous souls sought out the dirt roads and trails.
Boise taxidermist, Robert Limbert was one.
Camera in hand, Limbert set out to explore the arid landscape.
He was fascinated by what he found, particularly rock art, carved by early Native Americans.
Some drawings, Limbert speculated, could be thousands of years old. He was especially intrigued by Map Rock, a crude yet accurate map of the region carved on a rock along the Snake River.
In 1922, Limbert wrote, "By whom made, when, and why this strange stone map was prepared must forever remain a mystery."
That same year, Limbert set out to solve another mystery, exploring the Bruneau Canyon on foot.
Where others had found only desolation in the so-called "Canyon of Brown," Limbert found beauty. He called it "a river that boomed its way to the sea through a deep canyon smeared with ribbons of red rock sandwiched between layers of brown."
Today, Limbert's unexplored canyon is a popular attraction. Every spring, river runners seek out the Bruneau. They are far better equipped than Limbert. Yet, much is still the same on these desert rivers.
On any given day, floaters can have an entire canyon to themselves.
Chuck Elliott, Rafter:
There's only one access point. But we're probably not going to see anybody the rest of the trip. We're here on a Tuesday. It's very unlikely that we'll see anybody else the rest of the way down and it's still a spectacular canyon.
Phil Lansing, Outfitter:
It's the biggest empty quarter left in the lower 48 states, not by some kind of wilderness designation or national park designation or anything like that, but simply in terms of being empty, with no roads and no people. So it's just fabulous.
You know, I grew up in moose country, and paddled a canoe in the Northwoods in Canada and in Arctic Canada in the old traditional style. But I came out here and took a look at this and traded my moose in on a bighorn sheep.
It's almost as thought the desert conspires against those who want to explore its rivers. Floaters can spend hours hauling their gear around unrunnable obstacles, like Jarbidge Falls, or log jams created by spring runoff. Access is difficult, usually into steep canyons, over bad roads that become impassible after a storm.
The floating season is short and unpredictable. Depending upon the snowpack it may last a few weeks or only a few days.
But the desert rewards those who are willing to make the effort.
Petroglyphs, indecipherable by modern man are common in the canyons.
Sheer rock walls of weathered rhyolite and granite tower over rivers where every bend in the canyon unveils a new wonder.
Roger Rosentreter, Bureau of Land Management:
See the north facing canyon walls get all this kind of sulphur colored plant life on them and a lot of orange. And a lot of those are lichens and mosses and makes the canyon walls very colorful.
And mostly rhyolite rock in there, weathered from the river. And you get a lot of underhangs, which are really good for birds and other animals. These are neat canyon walls aren't they? I've spent a lot of time looking at mosses and lichens on them, I'll tell you.
And for the thrill seeker, there's white water.
The first thing you have to do is appreciate the risk. There's a huge death trap in Jarbidge Falls, where basically the river goes underground, underneath a huge boulder. If I thought that for a minute that there was not a good line far away from that, I wouldn't have run it.
And further down, the Bruneau River's Five Mile rapid is enough to challenge even the most competent boater.
Keith Taylor, Kayaker:
It's almost like someone tips the river down. And it just kind of takes off and begins with one very nice shot going by some big rocks that you kind of run right to left, then go through a rock garden, and work your way on down. And you can eddy out as you are going but if the water is moving at all, it becomes fairly technical.
I know the first time I ever ran it in a kayak I got mashed over three times and popped my spray skirt and ended up finally getting to the edge of the shore so I could empty my boat. Fortunately, I didn't swim but I was lucky I didn't.
But more than adventure the desert rivers provide something that is becoming increasingly rare--solitude.
It's very rare that you can go anywhere in the United States and have the open expanse that you do across the Owyhee, Bruneau country with no buildings, and no traffic lights, and no wires, and no nothing except open space. And, you know, inside that open space is nestled some of the most beautiful, mind boggling country in the United States.
Long before recreation was so important, some found another use for the desert--ranching.
In the late 1800's, ranchers began settling along rivers and streams and started carving out a living in the harsh environment.
It wasn't easy in a country where it takes acres and acres of land to raise a single animal.
It wasn't easy, but it was interesting, especially to Helen Nettleton.
In the 1940's, she moved West, married a rancher, and began documenting life in Owyhee County.
Linda Morton-Keithley, Historian:
The horses, brandings, corral work, the various animals on the ranch, any kind of activity like that was of interest to her. I think because she didn't grow up on a ranch, she had an outsider's point of view in that she found things interesting that someone who might live on a ranch all their lives, would maybe not even notice.
And she came in as a newcomer and recorded things that other people wouldn't have thought of recording. So it give us a slice of life that we might not have otherwise.
Early ranchers could never imagine the challenges facing their colleagues today. These days, cattle are moved several times a season to protect riparian areas, endangered species, and water quality--all unheard of a generation ago.
In the past, cattle may have stayed in an area for months at a time. As a result, entire streambeds washed away after cattle ate the grass and shrubs holding the streambanks together.
Today, cattle are kept out of the riparian areas, which quickly recover.
Bruce Zoellick, Bureau of Land Management:
We have a stream here that's been downcut in the past and now vegetation is growing in on the stream channel and on the streambanks. It's resulting in the stream channel narrowing and having more of a winding path through the downcut. Eventually, over long term you'll see the elevation of the streambed move upward and you'll start to heal up the downcut that's here now.
Elsewhere, cattle graze an area every few years, resting land and the vegetation.
For ranchers, it has meant major changes, including significant cuts in the number of cattle grazing on public land.
Bob Collett, Rancher:
On my own particular operation that amounted to 170 head of cattle. So it's quite an effect when we still have all the expense and everything. It doesn't go away. I still have the same amount of hired men, and the same amount of machinery that costs a lot of money, and trucks, and you name it. Cattle get cheap again, or another drought come along again or whatever and that will put some of us out of business.
Jay Cox, Rancher:
You know how you can tell the condition of the range? You look at your cattle. Those cattle are fat. Those cattle are in good shape. If those cows were poor, we're the ones that will pull them off. We don't make a dime if we can't put some pounds on these critters. And you can ride out and you can look at the condition of the cattle and it relates directly to the condition of the range.
What really burns me is this has nothing to do with what's happening to Mother Earth. It's politics. It's BLM playing games with the environmental groups to make everybody else in the world happy. And that's what's going on.
But those environmentalists say the changes are long overdue.
In the past it's basically been that the cowboys rule. And that's part of the whole American myth and legend of the cowboys that is hard to let go of. A lot of people appreciate Idaho for its wide open spaces and the imagery that's associated with that. I do too. But you also have to realize that we've paid the price from that past level of abuse.
And caught in the middle is the Bureau of Land Management.
Signe Sather-Blair, Bureau of Land Management:
On the conservation and environmental side, I think they think we've gone too far to try to appease the ranchers. And then the ranchers think we've gone too far to appease the environmentalists. So, we're pretty well squarely in the middle.
The decision was very fair and it's a recognition that we want to have clean water, we want to have wildlife, we want to have productive areas, we don't want our topsoil going downstream.
It's recognition of all those values that these areas have.
The author Wallace Stegner noted that, "to appreciate the desert, you've got to get over the color green." Now to those accustom to forest and fern, the desert can be a harsh and forbidding place. And yet with a little bit of insight and understanding, one can find beauty out here, a beauty that can spark as much passion and protectiveness as any landscape.
Thanks for watching. We'll see you next time.
Close Caption: Kelly Roberts