Malheur: Seeking Balance


By Julie Burchstead
Cover: Avocets and Yellow-headed Blackbird in Marshall Pond by Julie Burchstead

As a girl, growing up in NW Oregon, curious about all things nature, and appreciative of the diverse landscape our state has to offer, SE Oregon was always a place I hoped to visit. But life kept me elsewhere. Along the way, my cousin’s daughter and a former student both ended up working as hands on the Whitehorse ranch. As I followed them through the lovely photos of Mary Williams Hyde, the desert terrain and Steens Mountain in the backdrop beckoned more. 

Finally, when Sally Works, a friend and former colleague began to share her adventures and photos of volunteering at Malheur, I knew I could not resist much longer. Retirement brought me back west, the pandemic eased, and finally the stars aligned. And what a dazzling constellation of experience it has been.

Malheur is like no other place on earth. 

Perhaps it is the colors-so rich in their gentle subtlety. The way the green of spring begins to creep into golden winter grasses, sometimes with a tint of red, striping across the reach of land as far as you can see, until meeting the purples of distant plateaus and peaks, Steens Mountain with its ribbons of snow, and finally the open expanse of the sky.

Perhaps it is that sky with its ever changing moods and clouds. Clouds of every shape, color and description. Storm clouds build and shed rain at a distance, yet are so stingy in the basin where water is so desperately needed. Malheur clouds are a daily drama ending only when dusk brushes them all in delicate pink. 

Perhaps it is the history-one in which the story of nature and humans has been so very entwined. Where the voices of presidents, naturalists, biologists, agencies, ranchers, hunters, visitors and volunteers continue to weave together to seek a balance where humans and nature can both prosper in a fragile landscape, where small changes have wide-reaching effects. And you can’t forget the CCC craftsmanship of the headquarters buildings that have housed and witnessed it all.

There is the amazing topography with its complicated geological story-especially evident along the CPR, where a turn in any direction delights the eye.

And then there are the birds. In the first two weeks of being here, I have seen an astounding number of species. Avocets in their rosy blush, iridescent Ibis, an elusive Snipe (yes, they really exist!), a pair of elegant Sandhills with their red-headed colts, soaring Harriers …and so so many more. It has been hard to contain my excitement in emails to those at home. As a beginning birder, I have been so richly supported by the generosity and experience of my fellow volunteers and Malheur experts alike. It has been a quintessential environment for learning.

All these things are Malheur.

Volunteering at the refuge has been like summer camp for grown-ups and fulfilling in ways far beyond simple enjoyment. I love that in my work interacting with visitors and school groups, I might help nurture both appreciation for this unique place on earth, and perhaps kindle a spark in future generations who will continue to see the value in the refuge’s protection. Perhaps one of those visitors or young people will become integral to future collaborations and solutions to keep this integral, vibrant and unique place flourishing for years to come. 

I know I will be back.

Original watercolor of the Blitzen River near Refuge Headquarters
Afternoon on the Blitzen behind the Volunteer Camp


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