Written by Linh Nguyen/Photos by Alan Nyiri

As a Professional Science Masters student intern from Oregon State University, my program requires an internship consisting of a meaningful research project that will serve the organization I work with. In constructing the framework of my project for this internship, Ms Wicks and I settled on a project  that is a visually engaging outreach display of quotes about the Refuge, we call it the Words for Water project. I would be reading books, and collecting quotes about the landscape of the refuge through time from multiple sources . 

The more I read about the refuge, the more I admire the rich history of the land. It was first the home of the Burns Paiute Indian Tribe. Seasonally, the Wadatika Band lived in caves, and near shorelines, where they hunted for fish and game, and gathered seeds and fruits among other things. The first recorded encounter of the Paiute Tribe with the remaining part of the world started with Peter Skene Ogden, a fur trapper from Hudson’s Bay. In their expedition, they passed Malheur, Mud, and Harney lakes, and when they entered the Harney Valley on September 6th 1845, Jesse Harritt, a diarist in the party praised: 

“As we advanced this morning the beautiful scenery increased; this valley is one of the most sublime places I ever saw; […] the soil is rich and beautifully set with fine grass, intermingled with patches of sage; the mountains to the north in places are thinly set with pine and cedar timber.” 

From 1859 to 1865, the U.S. Military and Oregon Volunteers also explored the Harney Basin, Lt. Joseph Dixon wrote of the area north of Malheur Lake from the crossing of the Silvies River (June 1859): 

“to the base of the mountains, a distance of about 18 miles, the country is a beautiful level valley, covered with a luxuriant growth of bunch grass, wild pea vines, and red clover, interspersed with fields of camas on a rich soil abundantly watered by numerous mountain streams…. This wide savannah or grassy meadow section is abundant; antelope, deer, elk, and several species of grouse, prairie chickens, ducks, geese, etc.” 

As can be imagined from these two excerpts, the area was beautiful and thriving vigorously, with rich biodiversity. 

In June 1872, Peter French departed from the Sacramento Valley with 1,200 head of cattle, a Chinese cook, and a dozen vaqueros. The Donner und Blitzen River was enticing to French, as Giles French, his biographer noted, “This valley, surrounded by sloping hills on which grass grew as high as a man’s stirrups, looked like cattle heaven to Peter French and he thought it could be just that if range and cattle were properly managed.” French and his men altered the sagebrush steppe and diverted the natural flow of the river by flooding the lower Donner und Blitzen, to promote the growth of meadow grass. Giles French, wrote: 

“His irrigation projects … held the water of Malheur Lake at a lower level, causing more dry land between the water and the meander line. The meander line is a surveyed line which follows the outline of some given stream, lake, or swamp. Such lines were later to have profound impact on the life of Peter French.”

Indeed, the contest between French and homesteaders who moved onto lands below the meander line is the cause to his murder in 1897. 

You can see how, having begun this internship during these unprecedented times, reading these historical accounts is my only opportunity to come to know the landscape of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding Harney Basin. There is a deep and dynamic history that is inextricably connected to the land. Small windows to this world of water and land can be found among these words. I found my favorite quote among all these books.

“One of the greatest values of our national wildlife refuges is that they preserve nature unspoiled and provide a place where persons can go to repair the damage done by the rattle and clang of civilization. Nature aids us in placing human relations in proper perspective”

(Jackman and Scharff 1968:65).