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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Students find true West in Baker

Students find true West in Baker

Students from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland visited an old mine near Balm Creek Reservoir last week. The students, all geography majors, toured Baker County as part of a field trip for their American West course. (Submitted photograph).
Students from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland visited an old mine near Balm Creek Reservoir last week. The students, all geography majors, toured Baker County as part of a field trip for their American West course. (Submitted photograph).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Why, Sarah Payne wondered, weren't these soaring mountains mentioned in those legends of the American West she grew up believing?

Sagebrush she expected.

And heat.

Dust.

But Payne had read the frontier novels and watched the spaghetti Westerns, and in none of them did she remember anything about lofty peaks still bright with snow so close to the summer solstice.

Yet here she was, actually walking around the West in June, and she was having to crane her neck to see some of the summits and squint when the sun sparked against snowfields.

For Payne, a tour of Baker County demonstrated in a dramatic way how drastic the difference can be between the world depicted in a classroom, and the one that actually exists out among the sage and the snow-clad heights.

Payne is one of 18 third-year geography majors from Scotland's University of Aberdeen who visited Baker County last week.

"I never thought of mountains in the West — or forests," Payne said. "The flat plains and the heat — that's the West I imagined. I didn't expect such variety."

The students' trip, which included a tour of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center and a jet boat ride through Hells Canyon, was part of professor Jon Shaw's course on the American West.

Shaw said each student paid 765 pounds — about $1,100 — to participate in the university's first field trip to the West.

Shaw hopes it becomes an annual event.

And he hopes Baker County continues to be the destination.

"We could have gone anywhere, but this is such a unique environment," said Shaw, who attended the University of Idaho in 1993-94 and first visited Baker County in 1999.

"And it's such an unusual environment to the British mind."

For example, the very concept of water rights — of needing the government's permission to use a certain amount of water from a particular stream or lake — is "completely alien to the British way of thinking," Shaw said.

So too, he said, is piping that water to sprinklers arrayed in a field of hay or crops.

"We get enough free water from the sky that irrigation is not necessary," Shaw said.

Employees from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Baker Resource Area served as tour guides during much of the tour.

On Wednesday the group traveled to Virtue Flat east of Baker City, where they saw authentic Oregon Trail wagon ruts meandering through the ubiquitous sage.

Neither textbook nor film could replicate that experience, Payne said.

"Actually seeing where the wagons rolled makes it all real," she said on Thursday. "We learned more in the past few days than we could in weeks in class."

More than sightseeing

The trip was no mere sightseeing tour, though.

Shaw's students also delved into the rancorous debate over the ways American manages its millions of acres of public land in the West.

They discussed water rights and livestock grazing and endangered species. They visited an old mine near Balm Creek Reservoir and learned about reclamation laws.

None of these topics was unknown to the students, Shaw said.

What surprised them was the prominent role played by judges and courts and lawyers.

In Britain, Shaw said, "there are issues of land use, but there isn't anything like the potential for conflict like there is here. (Britain) is not such a litigious society."

Probably the main reason for the difference, he said, is that Britain has very little public land.

Most of the agricultural and forest properties in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are privately owned, Shaw said.

Federal laws govern the uses of these lands, but the laws are not as strict as those in the United States, said William Walton, Shaw's colleague on the University of Aberdeen's geography faculty.

Walton said he's never even heard of an environmental group filing a lawsuit over livestock grazing practices in Britain; there have been dozens of such suits in the American West over the past 15 years.

"In Britain we place a lot of trust in farmers for the protection of the environment," Walton said.

Farmers also receive substantial subsidies from the government, he said, although those are intended more to help farmers compete with their counterparts on the European mainland than to encourage conservation.

Payne, who grew up in a farming region about 40 miles north of Manchester, said she too was shocked to learn how frequently American farmers and ranchers must change their practices to comply with laws and lawsuits.

"I didn't realize it was such a contentious debate," she said.

Some issues similar

Yet for all the differences between the two societies, it seems American and British farmers might also find some common ground were two ever to meet.

Quintin Locke, another of Shaw's students, said he believes urban voters in Britain tend to support more stringent environmental laws.

"People in the city want to impose environmental things on people in the country," Locke said.

"And the country people resent that."

Locke might have been describing several recent elections in Oregon, where measures soundly rejected by rural voters became law anyway due to strong majorities in the much more populous Willamette Valley.

British landowners also could commiserate with their American counterparts over what might well be a worldwide scourge: open gates.

Locke said farmers in his country "don't like it when people don't close gates."

This problem exists in Scotland, despite the lack of public land, because the country's "right to roam" law allows hikers to cross private property, Locke said.

England has no such law, he said.

British farmers face similar economic issues as Americans, Locke said.

Britain's tradition of small, family-owned farms is dwindling, he said, a situation familiar in the United States.

Britain also has mimicked America by creating "watchdog" groups that make sure federal agencies enforce environmental laws, Locke said.

The difference, he said — and it is a vast one — is in the power such groups possess.

Locke said he believes American watchdogs have considerably more influence than their British counterparts.

For example, he said he can't imagine any British government agency having to deal with so many conflicting interests as the BLM does. Not to mention the ever-present threat of lawsuits.

"The BLM is getting it from both sides," Locke said.

Western stereotypes

Besides being surprised by what they did see – those snowy mountains, in particular — Shaw and his students also were a bit puzzled by what they did not see.

Locke said the tour taught him that several of the Western stereotypes he knew, the ones so beloved by filmmakers and fiction writers, clearly are of the past rather than the present.

He did notice a few mud-splattered pickup trucks well-stocked with rifles, but not once did Locke watch the bat-wing doors of a saloon swing open as two men strode onto a whiskey-stained street to settle a poker dispute with their Colt revolvers.

"We had some of the stereotypes confirmed, while others were not," Shaw said.

But Shaw said at least one stop on the tour seemed to him a scene taken straight from his imagination: Baker City's Main Street.

The city's downtown seems the consummate Western small town scene, Shaw said, with its tall narrow buildings and their decorated facades.

And Payne, despite her awe at the grandeur of the Elkhorn and Wallowa Mountains, and despite her shock at tales of farmers being sued because their cattle trampled a stream's banks, said she did not always feel a foreigner's unease in unfamiliar surroundings.

In fact, she said, she felt just the opposite while the group drove through the Baker Valley between Baker City and Haines, the latter town, with a population of almost 400, being nearly twice as large as the English village where Payne grew up.

"I feel quite at home in this environment," she said.

 
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