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Reclaiming Oregon Ranchland, One Barbed Prick At A Time


Pine Creek Ranch in Central Oregon used to be a huge cattle ranch spanning 35,000 acres. This spring, after years of restoration, much of it will become federally protected wilderness. Even though there are no cows left, there is a lot of barbed wire fence from those ranching days - miles and miles of it. Jes Burns of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on the backcountry volunteers working to remove the wire.

JES BURNS, BYLINE: The hike down into remote Eagle Canyon is a steep, slippery affair. There are no trails, just gullies of loose rocks called scree and the occasional line of barbed wire fence.

CRAIG TERRY: It's just amazing to me how these fences were built down some of these scree slopes. And now we're taking them out.

BURNS: Craig Terry is a volunteer with the Oregon Natural Desert Association. He and about 10 others are removing some of the last remaining barbed wire from Oregon's Pine Creek Conservation Area.

TERRY: Heavens, it's loose.

Pulling fence posts, rolling wire, you know, lugging the steel posts up the hills - that's what the whole job is about.


BURNS: For the earliest white settlers, barbed wire helped tame the West. It segmented millions of acres of wide-open space for livestock grazing. When cows were removed to protect the environment, the barbed wire was left behind. Jefferson Jacobs is leading this project. He says old fencing changes how wildlife moves over land.

JEFFERSON JACOBS: It can actually cause mortality of wildlife with animals getting tangled up in the barbed wire.

BURNS: Sage-grouse, elk and pronghorn antelope can fall victim to the fencing. That's why conservation groups all over the West from Washington to Wyoming have prioritized barbed wire removal. Volunteers all wear leather gloves to keep from getting gouged as they roll the stiff wire strands.

ANA PLESIA: I need a pair of cutters. It's - one of the strands is wrapped around a rock - OK.

BURNS: Ana Plesia grabs the barbed wire to pull herself up a steep slope. Plesia came on this trip to get a break from her office job in Portland.

PLESIA: I just wanted to come do something physical, no cell phones, go to bed when it gets dark at 7:30 at night (laughter).

BURNS: But sleep is still hours and miles away for this crew. Their job isn't done until the hundreds of pounds a dismantled fencing are packed out on their backs.

MJ HARE: I don't know how I'm going to make it up that hill...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm not thinking about the hill (laughter).

HARE: ...Because sit-down time is at the top of the hill.

JACOBS: As it is right now, we can hike it up to this sheep trail and use a truck to get it out.

BURNS: Crew leader Jefferson Jacobs says barbed wire removal becomes way more complicated after the handover when federal protections kick in.

JACOBS: If this was a wilderness area right now, we would be using pack horses.

BURNS: Most of the volunteer fence pullers, including MJ Hare, have been on these work trips in the high desert before. They come for the camaraderie and for their love of the stark and open land.

HARE: It's the reward of looking over your shoulder as you're leaving and not seeing any fence and how beautiful that looks just open and free.

BURNS: The next day, the volunteers sidestep down into the canyon once again to return another stretch of rangeland to wilderness. For NPR News, I'm Jes Burns at Pine Creek. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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