Return to the Wichitas, Part 2: Hiking Sunset Peak and Crab Eyes in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains

Brian heading into the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

It usually takes a me couple of days to get used to sleeping on the ground. Fancy mattresses and memory foam have made us weak. Comfy, but weak.

The growing chill of the night and the empty bottles of beer that Brian and I had finished off signaled that it was time to hit the rack. Frankly, I looked forward to crawling into my sleeping bag. It had to be warmer than sitting outside in the cool chill of the wind. But sleep doesn’t come easy. Not at camp, and certainly not with a thin pad between me and the ground. Then again, I knew this. It would be 20 minutes of dozing here, an hour there and so on for several hours, interrupted by the need to roll over to another side, shake off the chill or go outside to take a piss.

What I didn’t expect were the wake-up calls from our neighbors. And by “neighbors,” I mean the furry, four-footed kinds.

Somewhere near the lake, a chorus of howling and yipping pierced the still of the night. A regular coyote party, loud, constant and maybe even a tad aggressive. Those suckers wanted to be heard. And then, as if something caught their attention, it would cease. Not tail off from weariness, but end abruptly. It was weird. The little buggers would repeat this act a couple more times during the night. It wasn’t scary, but it was loud. It’s almost as if they knew they’d be waking us up.

On another occasion, I heard something more sinister. Some rustling, then loud, high-pitched animalistic noises of protest and pain, and finally silence. It wasn’t hard to solve that mystery. One fuzzy creature became another fuzzy creature’s dinner. It’s a hell of a thing to listen to something die.

That happened twice, further disrupting my sleep. The circle of life, on display in the Wichita Mountains: an annoying wakeup call to be sure, but at least I wasn’t someone’s midnight snack.

DAYBREAK

Sunrise from camp. Oklahoma does sunrises right.

Being a night shift worker, I rarely see a sunrise. That’s the beauty of camping, though. When it gets dark, you turn in. When it gets light, you get up. More like it should be outside the artificial construct of things like work, civilization and whatnot.

Dawn broke and I willed myself out of my sleeping bag to get the day going. We had a big day planned, so there was no sense dragging out any more minutes in the bag and on the cold, hard ground.

I was greeted by a cheery sunrise over the lake where we camped. High clouds blown in the from the south added texture to the fiery colors of the rising sun, with the orange, red and pink hues of dawn reflecting off the water. Oklahoma sunrises and sunsets are vastly underrated.

We munched breakfast, gathered our gear and talked about what the day might be like. Seven years of being away from the Wichitas left me wondering if I’d remember how to get to some of the spots I hoped to see. The trails in the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area tended to be faint and sparsely marked, and I’ve been known to get lost a time or two.

No matter. We’d figure it out. We got in the truck and headed back to the Sunset trailhead and made our way west.

I told a few stories along the way. As we were hiking through a patch of thickets and blackjack oak, I showed him where I had a close call with a buffalo nearly eight years earlier. Although I wasn’t keen on repeating that experience, I was hoping that we’d see some bison.

Shortly after leaving the woods, we ran up on a trio of hikers coming the other way. A man and his wife, plus another fella were making their way toward us. The second guy, as it turned out, was the other man’s father. His age: 86.

I know plenty of people 10, 20 and even 30 years younger than this guy who’ve long resigned themselves to steering clear of anything remotely close to wilderness exploration. And here he was, pounding dirt on a brisk Saturday morning. Call me impressed.

Eventually we made our way far enough where I could show him where Crab Eyes was, but that side trip would have to wait. The first destination, Sunset Peak, had to come first. We kept hiking west.

Mount Mitchell.

Somehow, I got us on the wrong side of a ridge that was taking us away from Sunset Peak and toward another mountain, Mount Mitchell. I figured this would lengthen our approach (Bad guide! Bad!), but it also showed me a more direct route to Mount Mitchell than the one I’d taken nine years before with my friend Johnny and his sister Ouida. On that trip, we hiked to Crab Eyes, then pointed ourselves toward Mount Mitchell by way of Styx Canyon. The canyon is probably the most rugged patch of “hiking” in Charon’s Garden. There’s no trail, but there is about an hour’s worth of heinous bushwhacking and route-finding before you’re clear of the thickets, thorns and boulders that litter the canyon floor. That’s not exactly what I’d call fun, so finding a smoother, clearer game trail that went straight to Mount Mitchell’s base was a pleasant discovery.

Around the time we were making out way around the ridge and toward Sunset Peak, we had our first megafauna sighting: First, it was one female elk. Then another. And then, more. At least seven of them warily eyed us from the crest of the ridge, then loped away and out of sight. No buffalo yet, but seeing elk in Oklahoma is rather rare unless you’re in the Wichitas.

By now, Sunset Peak’s south summit was in view. It stands out, towering above a high meadow that rests atop a short headwall. The last time I was here, that meadow sported a herd of a couple dozen bison. So I half expected to see them again once we topped the headwall.

But the meadow was empty. It was just us, the wind, and stubborn cloud cover that was keeping the temperatures down. While it would have been fun to see buffalo, at least we didn’t have to worry about navigating around these at-time temperamental beasts. Before long, we at the base of the peak.

SUNSET PEAK

Sunset Peak’s south summit.

Nearly seven years ago, my friend Johnny and I topped out on this mountain. It was tamer than Mount Mitchell, but there were still a few challenges getting up to the top. I remember some fantastic views and a little bit of effort, but I figured this mountain to be solidly Class 2 without any need for Class 3 scrambling unless you wanted it.

What we got was something else altogether.

There’s no trail up the south summit. It’s all about zig-zagging your way up the face, and route-finding is a constant.

My memory must have dimmed a bit on this one. I didn’t recall the thick, intermittent bushwhacking. And I certainly don’t recall as many Class 3 scrambles as we got. Brian readjusted his pack and stowed his trekking poles to handle the climb more easily.

Halfway up Sunset Peak.

Brian tackles a scramble going up Sunset Peak.

We did spot one cairn, so I went over to it hoping it would lead to a more obvious route up. No dice. It was a worthless rock stack, and I should have kicked it over. That took me back to more scrambles up the face before we eventually climbed our way to the big blocks atop the south summit.

One memory did hold, and that was the views. They’re spectacular. Shorter peaks and rock formations littered the surroundings. Farther north, Sunset Peak’s north summit (and true high point) awaited. The big sentinels of the Wichitas loomed in the distance, and for miles to the west, the fringes of the range could be seen rising from the prairie floor from as far away as Altus.

View from the top of Sunset Peak’s south summit.

What I like about these mountains is that they offer something most peaks east of the Rockies don’t: unobstructed summit views. When you’re in the Appalachians, most summits are covered with trees. It’s not until you get to New England that you hit mountains with treelines. The same is true in the Ozarks, the Ouachitas and most other mountain ranges east of the Rockies. You’ll get occasional outcroppings with panoramic vistas, but the Wichitas give you that alpine-style, 360-degree view without all the hassles of high altitudes. It’s hard to describe, other than maybe the Wichitas resemble what Joshua Tree might look like if you plopped it down on the Southern Plains.

We took a snack break in a natural wind break. Forecasts called for 60-degree temperatures, but even at 10 a.m., it was just 40 degrees and incredibly windy atop the peak. Soon we headed away from our shelter and down the saddle toward Sunset’s north summit.

Traversing the saddle proved a lot easier than climbing the south summit, and the north summit was an easy hike to the top. No bushwhacking, no scrambles. The north summit might be Sunset’s high point, but it’s considerably milder than its southern neighbor. Sadly, I forgot to take any pics from here. You’ll have to trust me that we got there.

From the east, you can see Sunset Peak’s gentler north (true) summit to the right.

Another view of the Sunset Peak massif. Both the north and south summits are visible.

From there, we stayed on the eastern slopes of the mountain and angled our way down south toward a ridge that stood between us and Crab Eyes. I wanted to avoid the ravine – just more boulder-filled heinous bushwhacking that didn’t look like a lot of fun. As we left the mountain and hiked up the rise, we saw the elk herd again, and just like last time, they eyed us for a few moments and hurried off. Within a half hour, we were back at the junction of the trail we took to Mount Mitchell and the southern trail that led to Crab Eyes, our final destination of the day.

CRAB EYES

A good look at Crab Eyes. This is an older photo from another visit to the formation.

We also talked with a young couple that was camping there: they were among the lucky few that got a backcountry permit. They were relaxed, munching on pizzas they made at their campsite. Cold pizzas, of course: Campfires are forbidden in the wilderness area.

The hike to Crab Eyes is a fun one. You meander through skinny trails that hug rock walls leading to the formation’s base, and then you see it towering above you: enormous granite slabs holding two massive boulders at the top. It looks like a huge, stony hermit crab staring down at you, hence the name.

A view of Elk Mountain, from the base of Crab Eyes.

Every time I’ve come here, I’ve had the place to myself. But this time we had company. I spotted three people at the base, with one person shimmying between two rock slabs. I recognized the move, as the route he was climbing was the “easy” way to the top. It goes something like this:

First, you wedge yourself between two roughly horizontal but slightly angled slabs and crawl your way up. Free of that obstacle, you can do one of two things: Crab-walk up two slabs (hands on one slab, feet on the other) or, for the more daring and dexterous, tightrope-walk up one of the slabs and never mind that 50-foot drop to your left. I’d call it a solid Class 4 route with a no-fall zone to the climber’s left.

As it turned out, they were making this climb to set up an anchor to do a technical climb up Crab Eyes’ east face. This is no small trick.

Though it’s a single-pitch climb, it’s notoriously tough. It’s a crack climb on really grippy granite, but it’s also slightly overhanging in spots. It’s rated a 5.10+, and according to this crew, a tough 5.10 at that.

A climber tackles a technical route on the east face of Crab Eyes. It’s rated a 5.10.

Belaying the climber on Crab Eyes.

I munched a little more and watched one of them negotiate the climb. He handled it expertly, but even after being lowered down, he admitted, “It’s harder than I remembered it.”

His friend piped in, “Just typical climbing in the Wichitas!”

Brian struck up a conversation with a third member of that party. She was considering hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and given Brian’s interest in through-hiking that Appalachian Trail, talk of gear and logistics came easy. As for me, I munched on my trail fave: summer sausage, cheese and a tortilla.

Tortilla, summer sausage and cheddar. This may be one of the best food combinations ever created.

We headed back not long after, reliving the complications of Sunset Peak and the beauty of the range. Too few people in Oklahoma know of this place, the most rugged patch of rock in the state. Considering the scarcity of public lands and real wilderness, it’s a little surprising to me.

At the same time, it is exactly as I remembered it. Wild, untamed and severe. It was a reminder of what America does right, in that we have long taken seriously the idea of preserving wild places such as this.

I can only hope that sentiment endures. The Wichitas are my Oklahoma happy place, a destination where I can climb rocky crags, enjoy sweeping summit views and tread the same paths of creatures that have called these environs home for longer than people have lived here. I hope it is always so.

Okie mountains rock.

Getting there: Take Interstate 44 to the State Highway 49 exit and go west. The highway will take you to the refuge.

About the route, Sunset Peak: From the Sunset trailhead, take the trail that starts at the gate of the west side of the parking lot. You’ll hike through a wooded grove until you reach a sign pointing left toward the Charon’s Garden Trail. Go right instead, continuing roughly west. You will cross two dry creek beds, then hike up a rise that gives you a view of the western portions of Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

In less than half a mile, you will run into a junction in the trail. One spur goes south toward Crab Eyes, the other turns into a game trail going west. Keep going west. You will hike toward Mount Mitchell, then turn north at the end of a rocky ridge to your right. Getting around the ridge, you will see Sunset Peak’s south summit. Hike up the headwall and cross the meadow to the peak’s base. From here, you’ll likely zigzag your way up the face. Route finding will be essential. About half this effort will be steep hiking, with some short but numerous scrambles on mostly solid rock. Continue until you get under the summit blocks, then traverse to your right to gain the top.

Once you’ve reached the south summit, hike down the saddle between the south and north summits. You should be able to find easier hiking with a little boulder hopping by staying toward the left side of the saddle. At the bottom, start going up toward the north summit on easy hiking to the top. A small bit of boulder hopping near the top will help you gain Sunset Peak’s true summit.

Round-trip hiking is about 6 miles. The route up Sunset’s south summit is difficult Class 2 to Class 3. The rest of the hike is a Class 1 approach, with class 2 sections on some portions of the mountain’s north summit.

Always something to see.

Crab Eyes: Follow the trail out of the Sunset trailhead parking lot like you would going to Sunset Peak. At the trail junction mentioned above, go left (south) and follow the established trail up toward the formation. The trail will eventually take you to a small headwall at the base of Crab Eyes. Hike left of the headwall, then up and to the right to the base of Crab Eyes. A Class 4 route to the top is the easiest way up if you choose to do it. On the north side of the base, hike up to an upwardly slanted pair of horizontal slabs. To ascend, wedge yourself between the slabs and shimmy your way up about 20 feet. From there, you will see two parallel vertical slabs about three feet apart that make up the main tower of the formation. You can crab walk up (hands on one slab, feet on the other) or tightrope walk up the left slab to the top. This is a very exposed part of the climb, as a 50-foot+ vertical drop is on your immediate left. The climb takes you to the top of the formation where the “eyes” (two large boulders) rest. Don’t bother climbing the boulders.

Otherwise, there are Class 5 routes up both the east and west faces. Bolts are in place on the west face.

The hike to Crab Eyes is Class 1, with Class 2 portions at the end, and is 3.6 miles round trip.

Things to know: The Wichita Mountains are home to abundant wildlife as well as a managed herd of longhorn cattle. Of particular note are bison. Give bison and the longhorn cattle plenty of room, as they can be dangerous when spooked or angered. The range is also home to rattlesnakes, so be on the lookout for them during warmer months. The range is also dry. All creeks and waterfalls are seasonal, so opportunities for filtering are relatively few. Bring plenty of water, regardless of season.

Dawn breaks at the Doris Campgrounds.

Camping: For tent or car camping, the Doris Campground features 90 spots. Some are semi-primitive, others have RV hookups. The east edge of the campground is by the western shore of Quanah Parker Lake. Campsite costs are $10 a night for tent camping. Prices go up for sites with electrical hookups. Restrooms and showers are on site.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also offers limited backcountry camping permits in Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area. Inquire for reservations; all permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. No campfires are allowed in the backcountry.

For more, go here.

Read Part 1 of “Return to the Wichitas” here.

Bob Doucette

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Return to the Wichitas, Part 1: Hiking Elk Mountain and Little Baldy in Oklahoma’s rugged Wichita Mountains

Brian checks out the views on the way up Elk Mountain.

Oklahoma is a prairie state. That’s its identity, and for the most part it’s accurate. But that also discounts the fact that the state contains wooded hills, desert-like terrain and in its southwestern reaches, rugged, ancient crags we know as the Wichita Mountains.

They’re not lofty by any stretch. Having stood for over half a billion years, you’ll forgive the effects of erosion over time. The Rockies, the Appalachians and the Ozarks are babies by comparison. But the venerable Wichitas still stand, popping up from the flatness of the Southern Plains between the military towns of Lawton and Altus. They’re out of place: craggy, alien forms that don’t match the sweeping plains dominating this part of the state. You might say there’s a geological generation gap going on there.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time there, hiking the wide valleys and rocky slopes inside this range, sharing the space with buffalo, elk and other prairie wildlife that call the Wichitas home. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees and wildlife refuge here, and within that refuge is one of the state’s few true wilderness areas. It’s not big, but it’s definitely wild.

I moved to Tulsa seven years ago, and since arriving, I haven’t been back to the Wichitas. A real shame, because that’s the place I spent time hiking and climbing in preparation for bigger adventures in the Rockies. What I’ve learned is that the Wichitas are a fine destination of their own. I missed this place, my Oklahoma happy place, and yet hadn’t set foot there in some time.

That changed recently. I have a friend who had never been there, someone breaking into the world of hiking and backpacking and eager to test his gear and his legs somewhere. After spending some time on the trails of northeast Oklahoma, he was willing to give the Wichitas a try.

The plan: drive to the refuge, make camp, and hit a few of the easier highpoints before calling it a night. Then get up the next day and do a deeper dive into the wildest patch of the range.

After seven years, I just hoped I wouldn’t get us lost.

A.T. OR BUST

I met Brian Hoover a few years back, probably at one of the races his company puts on. He got into trail running several years ago, began organizing events, and eventually TATUR Racing became one of northeast Oklahoma’s bigger race sponsors and chip timing providers.

More recently, backpacking and bushcraft has captured his interest. Being a goal-oriented fella, the lure of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail hooked him hard. He’s done a lot of research and beefed up his gear stash with his eye on attempting the AT in the not-too-distant future.

When I put out some feelers on social media about going to the Wichitas, he was keen to do it. The plan, in his mind, was to see a new place, don his new gear, and test it out. He also wanted the extra burden of loading his pack and doing our day hikes with the same gear he intended to carry on the AT.

The drive from Tulsa to the Wichitas was a quick three hours. We’d hoped to get a backcountry camping permit, but the refuge intentionally keeps permit levels down. Ten were issued, and that was all they could take. We settled for the established campsite at Doris Campground, which was fine by me. I joked that this meant we could use an outhouse rather than pooping in the woods.

After setting up camp, it was time to hit some trails.

ELK MOUNTAIN

There are loads of hiking and climbing areas throughout the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Most of the trails, while scenic, are also easy walks. The gateway to the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area – the most rugged part of the range – has long been the Sunset trailhead at the foot of Elk Mountain.

Looking at the Sunset Massif on the way up Elk Mountain.

The mountain itself looks more like a broad mesa from a distance. It’s only when you get up close that the mountain’s rugged nature is revealed. Its southern face is steep, slabby and in spots sheer, and rock climbers can find numerous technical routes there. The northern slopes are gentler, and that’s where the Elk Mountain Trail goes. It ascends several hundred feet to Elk Mountain’s broad summit, where commanding views of Mount Lincoln, Sunset Peak and numerous other high points in the wilderness play out.

Looking north on Elk Mountain.

I opted for a day pack, but Brian went ahead and hiked in his full backpacking kit. Practice makes perfect, and there were going to be plenty of places on the AT where you’d gain hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of feet uphill on any given day. May as well get used to it now.

Bouldery terrain at the top of Elk Mountain.

The trail ends atop Elk Mountain, but doesn’t hit the summit. That would require more off-trail hiking and a little boulder hopping west, toward the steeper cliffs on the south and west sides of the mountain. Stiff, chilly breezes greeted us and a few other hikers on the hill that day. Curiously absent: wildlife. Aside from a few birds, Elk Mountain was quiet.

Brian records some video and sound on the summit of Elk Mountain. Wind is noisy.

West views from atop Elk Mountain.

Brian checks out an overview looking east.

Summit view, looking east.

We headed back down, but still had some daylight to kill. One more minor summit would do.

LITTLE BALDY

Away from the wilderness area but still in the refuge is Little Baldy, a minor summit that guards over the dam at Quanah Parker Lake. Unknown to me at the time, but there’s a trail that leads from where we camped on the other side of the lake to Little Baldy, but I don’t think we would have been able to complete that hike before sunset.

Quanah Parker Lake as seen while hiking up Little Baldy.

Anyway, the dam is this cool concrete structure that looks like a miniature version of the Hoover Dam, built high in a ravine to impound the waters that now make up the lake. We parked at the dam, then hiked up the trail to the granite dome that is Little Baldy.

For such a small point, it commands excellent views of the refuge and the lake. I opted to take a tougher scramble to the top; Brian wisely chose not to, seeing that he was hiking in his bigger pack (Brian would do a lot of smart things on this trip without any prompting from me).

Looking northwest from the top of Little Baldy. This is a low-commitment, high-payoff summit hike.

Little Baldy’s breezy summit and the lowering sun cued us to hike down and make some dinner before turning in. I’m a night owl, but when I’m camping the setting sun is my sign to hit the sack.

After scarfing down dinner, we stayed up a bit, chatting about hiking, running and gear. I brought a six-pack of beer, a nice after-dinner treat to enjoy with the conversation (Shiner black lager – yum).

With that, we turned in. It would be a cold night – and quite memorable – to set the stage for a more ambitious outing in the morning.

Our camp was on the lake shore, and we had these fellas as neighbors. They were cranky when we got too close.

In the next installment: Brian and I wake up to bitter winds, cloudy skies and a busy day hiking through the heart of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

Getting there: Take Interstate 44 to the State Highway 49 exit and go west. The highway will take you to the refuge.

About the route on Elk Mountain: From the Sunset parking lot, cross the first bridge to the Elk Mountain Trail. The trailhead is well-marked, and the trail itself is easy to follow. Class 1, about 2.2 miles round trip.

About the route on Little Baldy: From the Quanah Parker Lake Dam parking lot, follow the paved walkway to the dam and walk across the dam to the trail. The trail is mildly defined from here, and going to the top is a matter of easy route-finding to the top. Route length is 0.6 miles round trip. Class 1, with some minor boulder hopping close to the top.

Things to know: The Wichita Mountains are home to abundant wildlife as well as a managed herd of longhorn cattle. Of particular note are bison. Give bison and the longhorn cattle plenty of room, as they can be dangerous when spooked or angered. The range is also home to rattlesnakes, so be on the lookout for them during warmer months. The range is also dry. All creeks and waterfalls are seasonal, so opportunities for filtering are relatively few. Bring plenty of water, regardless of season.

Bob Doucette

Oklahoma is a case study in why you can’t cede federal public lands to the states

A creek running through Natural Falls State Park.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a developing big-win story for conservation efforts in my hometown of Tulsa. I was feeling pretty good about that, able to block out the signs that there was going to be plenty of bad news on the conservation front coming soon. For now, though, we celebrate. Good vibes all around.

And then one day later, the other shoe dropped. Budget-makers at the Oklahoma Legislature asked the state’s tourism department to come up with a plan to accommodate a 14.5 percent budget cut the next fiscal year.

The answer, in short: Close 16 state parks.

I could write an entire post about how lawmakers’ reckless tax policies over the past decade or so led us to this point, making the state especially vulnerable during difficult economic times. Schools, health, public safety and child welfare have taken huge hits in Oklahoma over the years, in economies both good and bad. But I’ll let others discuss that. Instead, I’ll focus on what the Sooner State could lose if this plan becomes reality, and what this says about the national movement to turn over federal public lands to the states.

Here’s a list of parks and facilities Oklahoma could lose:

  • Talimena State Park
  • Great Plains State Park
  • Cherokee Landing State Park
  • Natural Falls State Park
  • Red Rock Canyon State Park
  • Great Salt Plains State Park
  • Lake Eufaula State Park
  • Lake Wister State Park
  • Alabaster Caverns State Park
  • McGee Creek State Park
  • Foss Lake State Park
  • Osage Hills State Park
  • Greenleaf State Park
  • Lake Texoma State Park
  • Grand Lake State Parks
  • Boiling Springs State Park
  • Grand Cherokee Golf Course

I haven’t been to all of these, but of visited several of them. Greenleaf State Park is an awesomely hilly, wooded and wild place in eastern Oklahoma that’s long been a favorite for the outdoorsy set. Alabaster Caverns State Park features great caves to explore, is one of the few places you can go caving, and is prime habitat for bats. Osage Hills State Park is a hidden gem, nestled in wooded hills northwest of Tulsa. Red Rock Canyon State Park offers prime rappelling.

Last summer, I made a point to explore another one of these places, Natural Falls State Park. I wrote about it here. Here are some scenes from Natural Falls:

Natural Falls.

Mossy oak.

A stretch of rugged trail at Natural Falls State Park.

 

All of these could face closure if these cuts become reality in the state’s next budget. Needless to say, this would be a huge loss for the state, its residents, and the tourism industry that Oklahoma is promoting on its new license plates. The irony is pretty thick with that one.

The plate encourages drivers to “explore Oklahoma” and visit the state tourism department’s website, travelok.com. But there might be less to explore really soon.

The larger point: Oklahoma is showing why you don’t want to hand over federal public lands to the states. Oklahoma is just one of many states to pursue the Kansas-style form of tax policy, that lowering taxes will increase job growth and eventually lead to higher revenues. That hasn’t happened in Kansas, and it sure isn’t happening in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and many other states that are experimenting with this. Instead, it’s leaving states unable to fund even basic, core functions of state government.

In Oklahoma, we can’t pay our teachers enough to compete with surrounding states, and they’re leaving in droves. Our state troopers can only drive so far from their headquarters to patrol the highways. Our prisons are staffed at 65 percent with underpaid guards who often have to resort to food stamps to feed their families. Is there any doubt that Oklahoma could not handle the added cost of taking over its part of the Ouchita National Forest, or the entirety of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge? How much greater would this burden be on cash-strapped western states where the federal public lands inventory is much larger?

And maybe that’s the end-game, to give public lands back to the states, who, when forced to carry that burden, have no choice but to sell it all off. We know where that ends: Wide-scale privatization, which means loss of forest, loss of grazing lands, and loss of public access. The list of those who lose — hunters, anglers, hikers, backpackers, climbers, cyclists, ranchers, tourism businesses and more — is lengthy.

Oklahoma’s budget process is still in the early stages, and it’s not certain what will become of its parks. There is already a petition going around to save the parks. But in the big picture, Oklahoma is the canary in the mine when it comes to public lands and land management policy for federal lawmakers and policymakers. Voters favor longstanding public lands policy that preserves national parks, forests and other federal holdings for use by the people. Adopting a policy of divestiture in favor of state control will do exactly the opposite of what the majority of the public wants. And by looking at what’s happening in Oklahoma, we know what the end result will be: a rapid loss of public access to treasured natural spaces in favor of the highest bidder.

Bob Doucette

Standoff at Malheur: It’s past time for the Oregon occupiers to leave

The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge continues. (Sacramento Bee photo)

The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge continues. (Sacramento Bee photo)

It’s been about three weeks since a group of self-proclaimed militia members broke off from a planned demonstration, drove to a southeastern Oregon wildlife refuge and, fully armed but facing no one, camped out and “took over” the federal facility’s headquarters.

The original protest, which took place in the town of Burns, was against the resentencing of a couple of ranchers who had originally been convicted of setting fire to public lands in an effort to cover up poaching. They denied that, but served sentences a federal judge later said were too short to satisfy federal sentencing guidelines. So back to jail they would go.

This upset many locals in Harney County, who felt like the ranchers got a raw deal. But what really got people’s attention is what happened after: When Ammon Bundy, son of now-famous Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, took a crew of armed men to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, holed up in the refuge’s headquarters, and said they weren’t leaving until federal public lands were given back to locals. They vowed to stay for years, if need be, until they got their way.

The takeover highlights a couple things, first being the ongoing tension that ranchers and private landowners have with the federal government. When the government owns most of the land out West, it’s bound to happen, and any time you reach an agreement with the feds, there are going to be strings attached. Naturally, some landowners find common ground with the Bundy clan and their ongoing disputes with the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies.

But a second thing on which it sheds light is a disturbing trend much bigger than stakeholder friction with the government. It looks as if there is a growing desire to make public — and armed — stands against the authorities an acceptable tactic for earning concessions on public lands the rest of us would never enjoy.

Going back to 2014, Cliven Bundy made news when the BLM finally got tired of him failing to pay grazing fees that he’d racked up over several years. His debt to the government is in the seven- figure range, and he was warned that if he didn’t pay up or remove his cattle from public lands, his cattle would be moved for him.

But when the BLM showed up to make good on its promise, so did Bundy’s supporters — a collection of like-minded folks from closer to home and a number of out-of-state militia types, armed with weaponry that you might see soldiers carrying into war zones. When the groups met face-to-face, federal workers had militia weapons trained on them, so they backed down. Cliven Bundy got his way because the BLM didn’t want some of its employees felled in a hail of gunfire.

Fast-forward to earlier this month, and it appears the desire for armed confrontation is still high with this bunch. Ammon Bundy, a Montana rancher, his brother, and a gaggle of out-of-state militia men are standing guard at their new possession, with federal law enforcement watching from a distance.

None of the refuge’s employees were at the facility with the Bundy group arrived, so the takeover was pretty easy. But they’ve taken to social media, asking people to send food, clothing and whatever else might help them endure a lengthy stay in the Oregon high desert.

A growing number of Harney County residents are ready for the Bundy bunch to leave. (ajc.com photo)

A growing number of Harney County residents are ready for the Bundy bunch to leave. (ajc.com photo)

What they haven’t received, aside from their own small number, is any real support — not locally or nationally. The county sheriff wants them gone. A Native American tribe that calls southeastern Oregon its ancestral home has been very public about wanting the group leave. Most locals are wary of their presence, and weary of the standoff, noting that they don’t feel safe with the potential of the standoff escalating. And the call for supplies has been met by people sending the occupiers packages of plastic phalluses and sex toys instead of the requested snacks. You might say the public response to their pleas has been acidly comical.

But the occupation of the wildlife refuge is no farce. There are real costs here, something conservationists, hunters, birders and outdoor enthusiasts have made clear. The Bundy militia wants the government to “give back” public lands to the people, but fail to understand that those very lands belong to all of us. Even neighboring ranchers understand this. One of them in particular was angered when militia members tore down a fence separating his land from that of the refuge, and immediately had his crew reinstall the barrier, telling The Oregonian newspaper that he has no problem working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on grazing deals.

That’s not to say that the friction between private and public isn’t real. It is. Ranching is a hard life with razor-thin profit margins, especially in the vast, dry lands of many western states. And if bureaucrats aren’t working closely with stakeholders, arbitrary decisions can turn into blow-ups quickly.

But the wildlife refuge itself has belonged to the people — every U.S. citizen — since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. We set aside public lands knowing that there is more to natural resources than what we can cut, mine, graze or extract. Diverse ecosystems make the land healthier, which can actually help agriculture. Unspoiled lands attract tourism, and thus more jobs. Conservationists of old, like Roosevelt, knew that the country’s heritage was intertwined with the natural realm.

Now that’s being threatened. Threatened by people who dress and arm themselves as if they’re going to war (I’m continually amazed at how some people want to look, feel and be seen as special forces heroes without the sacrifice needed to be given that honor). Threatened by men itching for a fight, deluded by the lie that their battles will start a revolution (you can see how well that worked for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols). Threatened by opportunists who keep saying God told them to do this, to take what really isn’t theirs alone (though shalt not steal, anyone?). While they haven’t come out and said it, the implication is they’re not leaving unless their impossible demands are met, or until blood is shed.

So far, the violence has been absent. Of that I’m grateful, and I tip my hat to federal law enforcement for learning the lessons from Waco that got some of their agents shot to pieces, then later ended in fiery horror. No one wants a repeat of that.

The only real action against the occupiers occurred when a couple of these dunderheads went grocery shopping in town, using government vehicles they didn’t have permission to use. I can only imagine the embarrassment the mighty warriors must have felt when they were relieved of their grocery sacks, cuffed, and hauled to jail in the back of a police car for auto theft. No glory in that, my friends.

The standoff is important because public lands belong to all of us, not just people with guns and free time on their hands.

The standoff is important because public lands belong to all of us, not just people with guns and free time on their hands.

But as the standoff persists and the feds keep watching, I wonder how it will end. Will the occupiers get frustrated and leave? Will the government cut off power and road access, trapping them in the compound? Will the militia mopes be prosecuted, or will they be free to go home like they did after the Nevada standoff in 2014? Or will this really end in a storm of bullets and clouds of tear gas?

However it goes, we’ve already lost something. For the better part of a month, out-of-staters with self-aggrandizing goals have disrupted the lives of the people of Harney County. They’ve called themselves “patriots” while forcibly commandeering and perverting the term. And with each passing day, they erode a part of what’s great about being an American — that we have wild places where all of us have ownership.

Bob Doucette

The peril facing public lands: How lawmakers want to sell off America’s natural heritage

Kit Carson National Forest, as seen from the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in New Mexico. Beautiful public lands.

Kit Carson National Forest, as seen from the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in New Mexico. Beautiful public lands.

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Certain memories never leave you. They make an impression — hopefully for the better — that doesn’t just bring a grin to your face, but becomes a part of the fabric of who you are.

I’ve got a lot of those. Many times, they build on each other, sort of in the way that a series of short outings becomes a longer life journey that takes you where you were always meant to go. It’s a satisfying feeling when you encounter one of those moments, then look back and realize how the events of your past led you to that amazing point in time.

That happened to me about nine years ago on a backpacking trip to northern New Mexico. There were five of us there, and we spent the day hiking up to a high alpine lake perched on the lower slopes of Wheeler Peak. Tall stands of evergreens and aspens were all around, carpeting the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area, a patch of wild land that is part of the sprawling Kit Carson National Forest.

I was first up that morning, crawling out of my sleeping bag and lighting my stove to cook a little breakfast. The rest of the gang was still trying to get a few more minutes of sleep before we’d head up to the highest point in New Mexico, then march back down the hill to civilization.

As I was boiling my water, I looked to my right and there they were — a female bighorn sheep and her lamb, staring at me, then casually easing their way up the slope to investigate our little campsite. They seemed completely unconcerned about the presence of people — this was their land, their home, I guess, and they’d probably seen folks like us come and go many times. They came so close that I felt I could have stood up and scratched mama behind the ears, though I know that would have never happened. Still, when you live in a community measured in the tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions, real wildlife encounters like that aren’t all that common. Not with creatures like these.

We made a lot of memories on that trip, and yeah, we did bag Wheeler’s summit on a bright, bluebird day. But that morning in camp stuck with me more than anything.

That encounter exemplifies the value of public lands. We were well within the confines of New Mexico, but by law, that national forest and that wilderness area belongs to all of us. The same is true of many other places across the West, and indeed, the entire country. Some plots of land were meant for individual landowners. But some, by their very nature, are just too precious to sell off or give away. They belong to everyone.

Unfortunately, that value — one that was so strong in the hearts of conservationist heroes like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, and still strong with the public at large — is waning in the houses of power.

In Utah, politicians there — backed by lobbyists representing energy and mining interests — are passing laws demanding that the federal government cede those public lands to the states. Utah actually set aside $2 million to sue over it. And the sentiment behind that is only growing.

Changing political tides on the national level are beginning to mirror Utah’s model. In March, the Senate passed an amendment (Senate Amendment 838) to a piece of legislation that would authorize selling or giving away huge quantities of public lands — those in national forests, wildlife refuges, and tracts owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Basically any federal land not already claimed by national parks or national monuments. The amendment passed 51-49, mostly along partisan lines, with three Republicans voting against it.

The measure was advanced with the ever-popular arguments of affirming states’ rights, shrinking the federal government and closing budget holes, but the reality is far more opportunistic. Forest Service and BLM lands are filled with places that have yet to be explored for oil, gas, rare earth metals, coal and other exploitable resources that any number of companies would love to extract. Billions could be made, though that doesn’t necessarily take into account the billions already being earned by people whose livelihoods depend on tourist dollars from Americans and foreigners itching to take in the wonders of the country’s vast, wild spaces, some $41 billion a year according to The New York Times. All told, that supported some 355,000 jobs.

I don’t have a problem with people wanting to earn a living, or really make a go at hitting it big. But when you’re talking about the industrialized extraction of natural resources, there is a huge and often permanent cost.

Matterhorn Creek in southwestern Colorado. It's pretty, but those waters are fouled by mine tailings.

Matterhorn Creek in southwestern Colorado. It’s pretty, but those waters are fouled by mine tailings.

In another favorite mountain haunt of mine, north and west of Wheeler Peak in southwestern Colorado, is the Matterhorn Creek Basin, a drainage that slopes downhill from Matterhorn Peak, Wetterhorn Peak and a large collection of other, lesser mountains that make up the area’s dramatic, primordial landscape. This place is drop-dead gorgeous, but I can’t filter water there for drinking or cooking, at least not in many of the creeks and streams flowing to the south. Old, small-time mines that are long abandoned still taint the watershed with mine tailings, making the water there unfit to drink. The San Juan Range is pockmarked with gorgeous places just like Matterhorn Creek Basin that are beautiful to look at, but traversed by waterways permanently spoiled by mines of yore.

If you go out east, in Appalachia, or north, near Butte, Montana, you can see much bigger scars on the land. Strip mines, pit mines, and mountaintop removal have all done a number on these places. In my home state of Oklahoma, in an area dubbed Tar Creek, lead and zinc mines left behind noxious chat piles the size of small ski hills, fouling streams and giving local children lead poisoning. Collapsing mine tunnels threaten to swallow buildings whole. It got so bad that the entire area was declared a federal Superfund site, and two towns — Picher and Cardin — were bought out, their residents moved and businesses closed. There were booming times in that corner of Ottawa County decades ago, but now just a couple of polluted ghost towns remain.

Huge chat piles in Picher, Oklahoma, part of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The chat piles are contaminated with lead and zinc mine tailings, which forced the abandonment of Picher and nearby Cardin a few years ago because of lead poisoning concerns. (Northwest Arkansas Community College photo)

Huge chat piles in Picher, Oklahoma, part of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The chat piles are contaminated with lead and zinc mine tailings, which forced the abandonment of Picher and nearby Cardin a few years ago because of lead poisoning concerns. (Northwest Arkansas Community College photo)

These are just a few tales from the dark side of harvesting natural resources from the ground. But no matter. Many states are hungry for economic development, and the lands they’d sell off are out of sight and out of mind to politicians in the big cities and manicured suburbs where most of their votes and donors come from. No one knows much about Matterhorn Creek’s spoiled waters because almost no one lives nearby, and getting there takes a little work. I just wish I could show it to them.

I checked a roll call of the Senate vote to approve this particular measure, and not surprisingly, both my senators were in favor of it. I didn’t bother writing Sen. Jim Inhofe. I just didn’t see the point. He’s the guy best known as the Senate’s chief climate change denier, and recently brought a snowball into the Senate chambers to prove that climate change wasn’t real. Conservation isn’t real high on this guy’s list of priorities.

I’ve heard from friends who know Sen. James Lankford, and they say he’s a reasonable man, one who will listen to others’ ideas. So I sent him a message last week. I’m still waiting for a response.

A scene from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma. The refuge is not only home to rugged peaks like this one, but herds of American bison like the ones in the foreground. Wildlife refuges are among the federal public lands that could be sold off if SA 838 is enacted.

A scene from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma. The refuge is not only home to rugged peaks like this one, but herds of American bison like the ones in the foreground. Wildlife refuges are among the federal public lands that could be sold off if SA 838 is enacted.

What I’d like to tell them is that while Oklahoma doesn’t have nearly as much federal public land as many western states, we do have amazing tracts of broadleaf and pine forests in the hills of the Ouachita Mountains (home to the Ouachita National Forest). Within the crags of the Wichita Mountains (where a U.S. wildlife refuge is found) there is an amazing biodiversity that surpasses any zoo. Buffalo, elk, coyotes, eagles — so many creatures in such a rugged, picturesque and special little realm. Do these guys really want to put these places up on the auction block? Have they ever been there? Do they even care?

Conservation has its roots in places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, locales so impossibly gorgeous that they’ve been declared national treasures by men and women far wiser than me. Born from that sentiment was a system of public lands that helped preserve vast acreages of wild spaces that are, many times, no less impressive, places like Wheeler Peak, the Ouachita National Forest, or the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Conservationists gave me the ability to camp in a New Mexico alpine forest, deep within the folds of a protected wilderness area where I could bask in that national treasure and share a breakfast moment with a couple of curious bighorn sheep. Hike in to Lost Lake, and you can see that, too.

That’s the beauty of public lands. My experiences can be yours, too. Or anyone else’s. These places belong to all of us. So please don’t tell me that they’re for sale.

Bob Doucette

The Weekly Stoke: Deadly avalanche in the Himalayas, a new kind of trail running, pot growing consequences and flying off the top of Everest

Kanchenjunga. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Kanchenjunga. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Summer is just about here! May your plans for the coming months include a whole lot of outdoor adventure. Let’s get started on this edition of the Weekly Stoke…

Mountaineering in the Himalayas goes beyond Mount Everest, and the other peaks are as dangerous or more than the world’s highest peak. Such is the case when an avalanche killed three climbers on Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain.

Trail and road races are great, but a new trend called “fastest known time” on solo trail runs is now a growing trend. Something that may appeal to the hardcore trail runners who prefer blazing a trail in solitude.

Illegal pot growing isn’t just creating crime issues. Illegal grows on public lands are also causing significant ecological problems.

And finally, check out this story about Nepali Sherpas who paraglided off the summit of Mount Everest in 2011.

The government shutdown and public lands: Deeper reasons why this matters

PARKSCLOSED

By now a bunch of people have weighed in with a ton of opinions related to this week’s government shutdown. You know the drill…

The tea party GOP is at fault for forcing this crisis…

Barack Obama and Sen. Harry Reid are at fault for “not negotiating.”…

Everyone in Washington is at fault because they all stink.

OK, whatever. Whole lotta views and finger-pointing going on, including some by me (I have family deeply affected by the shutdown) which won’t go anywhere near this space. That’s a promise.

Obviously, there are a ton of repercussions. Being outdoor-minded, one of the first I noticed is how this affects public lands. You know, national parks and stuff.

The refrain that I’ve seen is that “public lands belong to us; I don’t need the government to help me take a walk in the woods.” Or something to that effect.

You know what? That’s true. There isn’t much that can stop you from going into a national park on your own, shutdown or not. And please feel free to do so. It is, after all, your lands.

But that’s also not the point.

What is?

Livelihoods.

Lots of federal workers are being told they cannot report to work, and are not being paid. Depending on how long this drags on, that’s going to affect their households quite a bit. And before you drone on about “lazy government workers,” just stop. There are good, hard-working people in every sector, and they vastly outnumber the bad. Denigrating other people’s professions — and the service they provide YOU, the taxpayer — doesn’t do anyone any good. I’m grateful for the people who work to maintain and protect our public lands, and if you use those spaces, you should be, too.

Conversely, we should also feel some compassion for people who might not know how they’re going to pay their bills and put food on the table this month.

The “essential” workers are on the job, but they’re not getting paid, either. So those rangers, law enforcement officers and others who patrol public lands are working for you — for free. Hopefully that status changes soon, and hopefully they get their back pay.

But this goes beyond the government workers. Plenty of businesses exist within public lands, and those places have had to shut down, too. Hotels and lodges, restaurants, tour companies, and more; small business owners and their employees are getting hurt.

Closures of parks means fewer visitors to nearby towns. Businesses in those communities are going to feel the bite, and quick. Will they be forced to cut their workers’ hours? Lay people off? That possibility looms large.

And still there are others — outdoor/travel writers, guides and more — whose livings are tightly bound to legal access to public lands. They can’t afford to have their permits yanked by disobeying closure orders. So for future considerations, a lot of these folks are forced to bite the bullet now — and pray they can survive one hungry month (or more).

What’s my point? It’s this: Go beyond how the government shutdown directly affects you and your access to public lands. Think about the people whose lives are tied to these wonderful spaces; to the people who keep them safe; to the folks who build and maintain the trails you hike; to the heroes who save the lives of folks who get into trouble in the backcountry; to the researchers who help preserve the wildlife we long to see out in the bush.

Your access is not the main issue. The entire system is. This land is, indeed, your land. But it’s also my land. And everyone else’s. You should give a damn because a lot of the people charged with caring for it aren’t allowed to go to work, and the many others who make our stays enjoyable, fun and comfortable when we visit these great spaces are hurting.

I can’t tell you what you should do from here. But maybe you should think about doing a little more than “poaching the parks.” Call your congressman and senators. If you know folks who are off the job, show them some kindness. Write the president. Vote.

Because in reality, this ain’t just about you. We’re all in this together.

(One small side note: Plenty of people have already paid for permits to vacation in places like the Grand Canyon, and in cases of white water rafting, have been waiting for years and spent a lot of money. This really stinks for them, too; hard-earned money going down the drain. I feel for you.)

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088