Winter thus far in the Harney Basin has been exceedingly mild. Where last year there were snowdrifts several feet deep even on the basin floors, this year it’s mostly bare ground everywhere one looks. As I write this, temperatures have reached nearly 60 degrees in Burns, Belding’s ground squirrels are waking from their winter torpor, migratory tundra swans and snow geese are gathering in the basin’s ice-free waterways, and robins and Townsend’s solitaires are practicing their songs from the treetops.
With scant accumulation of snow in the basin, our thoughts go to the fault-block massif to the southeast, Steens Mountain. The slopes of Steens capture much-needed precipitation in winter, which finds its way down to the Refuge via the Blitzen River and its tributaries as spring and summer runoff.
The gradual western slope of Steens Mountain boasts an impressive 75-square-kilometer contiguous area above 8,000 feet in elevation–unique among ranges in southeast Oregon. This enormous sheet collects precipitation flowing eastward from the Pacific, up to 28 inches per year at the highest elevations. Further enhancing this effect is the fact that the northwest Great Basin experiences more winter precipitation and lower average temperatures than the rest of the Great Basin. Thus Steens acts as an enormous winter reservoir for the surrounding lowlands: Snowpack on Steens translates to life-giving water on the Refuge, even through the hottest months of summer.
This high-elevation catchment makes possible the shallow expanses of Malheur, Mud and Harney lakes; the lush meadows of the Blitzen River Valley; the aspen-choked gorges incising the mountain itself. Water from Steens courses through perennial streams that host Great Basin redband trout and American dippers, the only aquatic songbird in North America.
Steens Mountain’s influence goes far beyond ecological benefits. The mountain looms large in the minds of those that cherish this area; it is a lodestone that draws the gaze and attention of visitors and lifelong residents alike. The late writer Ursula K. Le Guin was a Steens devotee, and she immortalized the mountain and its environs in Out Here, a collection of poetry, photographs and sketches she released with photographer Roger Dorband. In her poem “Wright’s Point”, Le Guin describes the understated prominence of this “nothing-much-looking mountain”:
Steens, that drops eight thousand feet
on the far side, faultblock
subtle and enormous geology
structure of my deep joy