We “took over” Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for one beautiful late October morning when we were the only visitors. The photographs here were taken during those enchanted hours.

Coyote on Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Coyote trotting along the Central Patrol Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

The spicy scent of sagebrush fills the morning air. Mist rises from wetlands teeming with waterfowl. A Coyote trots across a meadow with a purposeful gait. In a burst of energy a cloud of thousands of dazzling white Ross’s Geese take to the air in a frenzy, only to settle back down a minute later. The quiet returns.

These are among my fond memories of Malheur, based on numerous trips to the remote wildlife refuge over the last 25 years. Malheur and its setting is a slice of the old West, quiet and sparsely populated and much loved by residents and visitors alike.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1908 by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” This immediately followed an era in which plume hunters killed all the Great Egrets in the Malheur area in order to obtain feathers for a women’s hat craze of the era. Which, of course, illustrates why regulation of natural resource harvests came to be: if everyone has unlimited access to harvest what they want, the resource inevitably disappears. This has been true of virgin forests, Passenger Pigeons, whales, Beaver, and every other form of nature that has an economic value.

Foggy Autum Morning along Central Patrol Road in Malheur Nationa
Central Patrol Road on a foggy autumn morning

Prior to the refuge, Indians inhabited the Malheur region for 15,000+ years, leaving evidence of their camps and graves in what became the refuge headquarters area. Eventually, Malheur became a case study in mistreatment of Indians: a Malheur Reservation was created by the federal government in the 19th Century, but that was followed by a chipping away of the reservation to give land to settlers. Treaty hunting and fishing rights were abrogated. Eventually, the whole tribe was forced to march in snowy weather, without enough food, over two mountain ranges all the way to the Yakama Reservation in Washington. Many died along the march and in their years of exile. A sad and typical tale of mistreatment of our first peoples.

The Great Depression hit America with an iron fist. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt responded with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program to put young people to work on conservation projects all around America. Shortly after that, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge received three CCC camps, and over 1,000 young men worked on the refuge over seven years. They built dikes and dams and roads and fences. They constructed four fire towers, quarried the stone and built the beautiful headquarters buildings, and started Page Springs Campground. Every visitor today can see the dramatic results.

Mule Deer in Car Headlights in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Mule Deer crossing road, illuminated by my car headlights

For all its conservation accomplishments, the CCC also had a major economic impact upon Burns and other surrounding communities by spending $15,000 per month in those towns on supplies, rentals, and payroll. It was a win/win for everyone involved. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment was in giving young men jobs at a time of near-hopelessness; this instilled a work ethic in these young men, who later became the heroes who won World War II.

In sum, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is one of the preeminent conservation success stories in America, with two of my favorite presidents–Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt–contributing to its success. Over the decades, Malheur became a legendary location for birders and other outdoor recreationists, including hunters and fishermen. I consider it one of my favorite landscapes in North America, blessed by its remoteness, beauty, silence, and wildlife. People of the region came to love it, and there was a good agreement on a management plan that was hammered out between ranchers, naturalists, hunters, and other stakeholders that was considered a model for refuges across America.

Female Ring-necked Pheasant at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Female Ring-necked Pheasant at Malheur NWR

Then came the Bundy occupation of the refuge in the first days of 2016. A group of armed state’s-rights zealots took over the refuge headquarters, and occupied the beautiful CCC buildings for over a month before finally leaving. Their occupation disrupted the good work of the refuge, created division across America, made a mess of the place, and included thefts of equipment. One occupier died while reaching for a gun at a roadblock. For all this, a runaway and misguided jury refused to convict the perpetrators on a single count–a travesty of justice that still makes me incredibly bitter.

There is a movement in rural parts of the West to give away our national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other federal lands to the states. Why? Because many people want local control of the land so that they can clear cut more timber, strip mine more coal, loosen environmental regulations, and hunt, graze, fish, and trap to their heart’s delight. I vehemently disagree.

Cattle Grazing on a Ranch near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Cattle grazing on ranch lands adjacent to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

If states were given the land, they would sell off much of it to private companies, and access by hunters, hikers, fishermen, and other recreationists would be either denied or made expensive. For example, on Weyerhaeuser land in Washington State, access that was once free or low-cost has now become expensive, with a family camping permit for a year costing $300: Weyerhaeuser Fees 2016. If land was sold off by the states, we would end up with a patchwork of permit systems that would be costly for families to access the land. I can understand the position of Weyerhaeuser: before the permit system, they had a lot of cases of illegal dumping and vandalism on their land–just as we would have in the national forests if there were no rangers on patrol.

Mule Deer at Deep Dusk Lit by a Headlamp
Mule Deer doe at deep dusk lit by my headlamp

I also have concerns about potential subdivisions in the forest. If land was sold off to developers, many of our beautiful forests and lake shores would become housing developments–nice for those who live there but a blight on the landscape for those of us used to the expanses of natural beauty we now enjoy–and that we now own. Who would pay for fire suppression for all these new developments? The federal government? I can’t see the states doing it and I certainly don’t think that the owners of these forest homes would want to pay the thousands of dollars per year for each home to have special fire insurance to fund large scale firefighting efforts. So I suspect that the Forest Service would end up providing free firefighting services to save homes all across the West.

These lands represent our national heritage, and belong to all of us. We paid for them and have cared for them for over 100 years. When people say that local people could manage the land better than professional rangers, foresters, wildlife managers, and other biologists, what they are really saying is that they want to make money by taking timber, minerals, and grazing at little or no cost to themselves.

Foggy Autum Morning along Central Patrol Road in Malheur Nationa
Central Patrol Road near P Ranch on an October morning

For example, Cliven Bundy has grazed his cows on federal land for years and refuses to pay the over $1 million in fees that have accrued since the 1990s. He thinks that he should be able to graze his cattle on public land for free. Anyone who has been paying attention to the conservation battles of the last century knows that where there are limited resources–in Bundy’s case, grass for his cattle–unlimited and unregulated use will inevitably ruin the resource. That’s why we have grazing allotments that ranchers pay for, and why we have professional grazing managers to determine how much grazing the land itself can allow.

This is a sad new chapter in our history; anyone who wants to read more about it can refer to the links at the bottom of the weblog. I, for one, intend to stand with our finest conservation presidents, Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, to preserve our shared national heritage.

Mule Deer Doe in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Mule Deer doe wet with heavy morning dew

But enough about armed thugs and their bad ideas. Malheur is still there, with its vibrant beauty ready to overwhelm visitors. We were heading home from an extended southwestern trip in November of 2016, long after the occupation had ended but before the headquarters reopened to visitors. Unarmed, except with cameras, we took over the refuge for a morning, as we were virtually the only people enjoying its silent vastness. The photographs here are all from that brief time in a Shangri La of the old west, during our enchanted takeover.

To view more work by photographer Lee Rentz, go to Lee Rentz Photography. Photographs are available for licensing.

To learn more about Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, go to Malheur NWR, Malheur Occupation Aftermath, Conservation Setbacks, Bundy Grazing Controversy, and Portland Audubon: Malheur.

Coyote on Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Coyote crossing Central Patrol Road
Buena Vista Ponds in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
View from Buena Vista Ponds toward an escarpment and mesa
Autumn Textures in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Textures and colors of grasses and willows
View from Buena Vista Overlook in Malheur National Wildlife Refu
View from Buena Vista Overlook across the expanse of Malheur
Road through Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Road near Buena Vista Ponds
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon, USA
Vast seasonal wetlands in Malheur NWR
Coyote Hunting in Meadow in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Coyote in a wet meadow, alert to the intruder
Foggy Autum Morning along Central Patrol Road in Malheur Nationa
Storm clouds in the distance, with sunlit meadows in the foreground
Coyote on Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Coyote pausing to look back along the road



SOL DUC: A Green and Dripping Place

Moss-covered Bigleaf Maple in the Sol Duc Valley

Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where I live, is a moist and enchanted place where plants grow with vigor and frequent strangeness.  Looking into the forest from the windows of my study, I see a Bigleaf Maple trunk covered with creeping bright green moss, and with Licorice Ferns emerging from the overwhelming moss.  The canopy of Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars casts a dark and depressing shade from November through February, and bits of lichen and moss blow down onto my mossy lawn whenever a strong wind blasts through the forest.

We decided to drive to an even wetter place in mid-February:  the Sol Duc Valley of Olympic National Park, where there is even more rain than in our little town.  Sol Duc is on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula, and is close to the famous Hoh Rain Forest, which is drenched with over twelve feet of rain in a year–most of it from November through April.  These temperate rain forests are lovely, if you REALLY like rain and have a sunny disposition that can withstand day after day of steady downpours.  Some people have adapted well; such as the loggers and vampires in the remote town of Forks who spend their days outdoors no matter the weather.  I envy their webbed feet … but I like my dry days too much to spend my life in the heart of the rain forest.

Our temperate rain forests catch the wet, low clouds sailing in from the Pacific Ocean.  The Olympic Mountains force the clouds to dump most of their water load on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula, leaving the east side, where I live, with just 65″ or so each year.  Still wet.

Anyway, back to Sol Duc.  This valley is famous for its hot springs, which have their origins in the active geology of the Olympic Mountains, where collision of two of the earth’s plates causes earthquakes and rising mountains and naturally hot water.  Alas, the hot springs are closed in winter.  But we knew that; our destination was Sol Duc Falls, which is a 0.8 mile trail from the end of the road.  It is an easy trail, with some gentle ups and downs, and the falls at the end are spectacular and thundering after a week of winter rains.

What struck me, and what I concentrated on photographing, was the mosses and lichens and green plants draping rocks and tree trunks.  I felt that if I stood still too long, my skin would take on a green cast and I would have moss growing out of my ears and nostrils (picture that, if you will!).  I was reading a novel just before this hike, in which a band of hikers encounters a conscious, hungry vine in the jungles of Mexico.  If you have a vivid imagination, and want to think forever differently about plants, read The Ruins, by Scott Smith.  Then take a hike on the Olympic Peninsula and pray that you’ll come out of the rain forest alive!

A Western Hemlock with a humanoid form clasps an elder hemlock

Sword Ferns arc spiderlike over the forest floor

Oregon Lungwort (Lobaria oregana), a strange and large lichen

Tall conifers in the fog, with young Western Hemlocks

The trees reach high for the sky in this wet landscape

Moss dripping from a Vine Maple

Sol Duc Falls roaring after a winter rain

Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) and mosses on a Bigleaf Maple

A trail shelter built by the CCC toward the end of the Great Depression

Moss covers every limb of a Bigleaf Maple

A rustic log bench waiting for a Hobbit

Moss thrives on the roofs of most buildings on the Olympic Peninsula

A small tributary of the Sol Duc River tumbles through mossy boulders

Sol Duc Falls viewed from a cliff downstream

Mossy Vine Maples twist their way through the forest

More mossy limbs of Bigleaf Maple

Giant trees catch a ray of sunshine through the mist

Sudden inspiration at the end of the day

For more information about Olympic National Park, go to:  http://www.nps.gov/Olym/index.htm

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

OREGON OUTBACK: Malheur in April



Buena Vista Ponds and Overlook in Malheur National Wildlife RefuBuena Vista Ponds and Overlook in beautiful light



When the Olympic Peninsula’s spring rains get the better of me, my mind wanders to the high desert of eastern Oregon, where the wide open spaces and vast blue sky provide a particularly American salve for the soul.  In that land of sagebrush, my favorite place is Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which is located south of Burns, about 550 miles from my home.  This year Karen and I spent a day on each end driving, plus three days, April 24 to 26, in and around the refuge.


I like Malheur in any season, but July can be a bit sleepy and hot.  Late March is great for seeing thousands of Ross’s and Snow Geese near Burns; the sight of ten thousand white geese suddenly lifting off a marsh is enough to inspire my love of nature for years.  This year our window of opportunity was late April; to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld’s crude comment:  you go to bird with the time you have, not the time you might want.


Just over 100 years ago, Malheur was a hotspot for plume hunters.  In the early 1900s, ladies loved to wear egret plumes on their hats with the same fashionGreat Egret, Ardea alba, in flight at Malheur Refuge, OR intensity that twenty-somethings now feel for their eyebrow piercings.  Bird populations at Malheur and the Everglades and other bird hotspots were mined for feathers by hunters who were as plume crazy as the ladies that lunch.  To stop the slaughter in its bloody tracks, President Theodore Roosevelt created Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 1908.


It took another crisis and another Roosevelt to develop the refuge’s infrastructure.  During the Great Depression of the 1930s, young men working in two CCC camps on the refuge built the beautiful stone headquarters complex, as well as two fire towers and the Center Patrol Road that so many of us now like to explore.  You can thank Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency for this birding opportunity.  Some say the 1930s social programs suchBuilding built by CCC at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as the CCC were makework jobs programs:  don’t believe it for an instant.  Everywhere across America our state and national parks and refuges owe much of their long-term success to this early, sensitive development by hard-working young men and the designers and foremen who led them.  This program was the very model for success, and I would like to see a new version implemented today.


Birders know the key birding locations at Malheur, and there are plenty of guidebooks that tell the best places to see various birds.  I’m not going to reiterate

Center Patrol Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon The Center Patrol Road runs north and south through the heart of Malheur

these, but I’ll give a few impressions of our experiences at the hotspots.  I’m also not going to list the species we saw, because I didn’t keep a list and I’m not much of a birder anyway; I’m more interested in photographing and observing intensely rather than seeing how many species I can see.  I’ve never quite gotten the gestalt of bird identification that the best birders have.


Double-O Ranch is a favorite place.  With water levels low in Harney Lake and elsewhere, the areas west of Double-O are blindingly white with salt crystals that


Fence through alkali flat in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Alkali flats west of Double-O Ranch in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge


look as if snow has blanketed the desert.  It is truly an alien environment, but one Killdeer didn’t seem to mind.  She laid her eggs in a shallow scrape in the salty soil; when we got too close, she tried to lead us away from the nest with herKilldeer faking broken wing in salt flats at Malheur Refuge trademarked broken wing ruse.  Which reminds me:  about ten years ago we were on the Center Patrol Road and found a Killdeer nest on the shoulder of the gravel road.  In this instance the Killdeer did not run away; instead, it attacked me and my lens with a ferocity that reminded me of insanity.  I was able to get so close to this bird that I got full-frame pictures with a 24mm lens.  It is possible that the bird was attacking its own reflection in the lens, but who knows what’s in a bird brain?


Double-O was also good for Willets and American Avocets and a variety of ducks this year.  The small ponds are good for photographing these wading birds, using


American Avocet, Recurvirostra americana, feeding at Malheur, OR

American Avocet feeding near Double-O Ranch


the vehicle as a blind.  In the past we have seen Short-eared Owls and Black-tailed Jackrabbits here, but not this year.


One late afternoon a windstorm arose.  In most places a windstorm is unsettling and unpleasant for birding, but here the high winds reduce visibility dramatically.  As the wind races across the abnormally dry expanses of Harney Lake and Malheur Lake, it picks up the salty dust from the lake surface.  Dust devils twirl in


Dust storm in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

A dust storm created when wind whipped across a dry lakebed


happy abandon during the lighter winds, but in a heavy blow the dust rises in thick clouds from the dry lakes, reminding us of the dust bowl photos from the dry 1930s in Oklahoma.  It is grim.  The normally calm surface of Benson Pond turned into a severe chop that tested the seaworthiness of the Trumpeter Swans.  Most of the Common Egrets in the area gathered together in the willows to ride out the storm on bucking branches.  Fishermen out for opening day on Krumbo Reservoir had to give up the quest.  Birders’ Subarus driving down the paved road sent up plumes of white dust.  Fortunately, the wind settled down that evening.


Refuge headquarters is a good place for birders to stop.  We always check out the visitor center whiteboard with recent bird sightings;  in addition, the tall cottonwoods and nearby water attract all sorts of rarities each year.  My favorite sight this year was seeing Yellow-headed Blackbirds and California Quail feeding at the seed feeder in front of the visitor center.  A Red-tailed Hawk screeched obscenities at us from its high nest over the museum building.  Belding’s Ground Squirrels appeared and disappeared like the groundhog star of Caddyshack.


Down the road at Buena Vista Overlook we watched lichens, which is much easier than watching birds but not quite as exciting. Though they may be even harder to identify.  One chartreuse lichen, in particular, grew vividly on the north sides of volcanic boulders; the other sides must get sunlight too intense for this species.

Ruddy Duck breeding male in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

A Ruddy Duck with a bill to match the clear desert sky


Down on the Buena Vista Ponds, Ruddy Ducks with their intense blue bills stole the show, though the Marsh Wrens and Cinnamon Teal competed for our attention.  This year the light was wonderful on these ponds; sometimes when I’ve been here the ponds were dry, so this was beautiful.


One last favorite stop is at P Ranch.  If we were here a month later we could see Bobolinks establishing territories in grassy meadows just to the north.  This time, we saw dozens of Turkey Vultures coming in at sunset to roost in their traditionalTurkey Vultures, Cathartes aura, roost on CCC fire tower at Malh location:  up and down the tall fire tower.  P Ranch is a good place to watch for Great-horned Owls roosting in the cottonwood grove.  One year we saw five porcupines feeding at sunset in the meadows near here.  Each porcupine, backlit by the setting sun, had a quill halo that reminded me of a particular late ’60s Bob Dylan album cover.  Kind of a prickly memory and an indicator of my age.  Another year here I saw a Mule Deer with a fawn so fresh that the doe was still bloody from the birth.


I could ramble on about our Malheur nature experiences for hours, but my dear readers might abandon me wholesale.  I will, however, mention that we also saw a weasel (my highlight for the trip!) along the Center Patrol Road that I attracted with my crude rendition of bird spishing.  We also observed several pairs of Coyotes that ran away as if we were some rifle-toting ranchers; plus some Sandhill Cranes lifting off in their achingly graceful dances; and Wild Horses and Pronghorns gracing the sagebrush hills bordering the refuge.


If you’ve never been to Malheur in the Spring, you are depriving yourself of one of the great birding experiences in the West.  Get in your car, do the un-green thing and drive hundreds of miles to the refuge, and have one of the finest birding experiences of your life.  Malheur’s aura will stay with you for years.



Willows, Salix sp., near Frenchglen in Malheur Refuge, Oregon Willows intense with spring color near Frenchglen and P Ranch


Benson Pond area at Malheur National Wildlife RefugeSagebrush and willows along the edge of Benson Pond


To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.

April 2, 2008 Caddo Lake State Park near Uncertain, Texas

This is part of my weblog documenting my travels and photography.  I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com.

On a recommendation from a fellow photographer, after the Bayou City Arts Festival in Houston I drove north to camp at Caddo Lake State Park along Big Cypress Bayou.  I didn’t know what to expect here, but was thrilled  with the setting—a bayou with Spanish Moss thickly draped upon old Baldcypress trees.  The Old South come to life in a corner of northern Texas.  

I was especially intrigued by all the old log cabins in this state park, and when I asked at the desk, the attendant confirmed that they were constructed by the CCC.  I happened to know what the CCC was, but another visitor at the desk did not, so I gave him a three sentence synopsis of its history.  Which I’ll also give you, or maybe I’ll make it a bit longer just for you, my dear reader. The CCC stands for the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was created in 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The CCC was a vital response to the devastating human toll of the Great Depression, during which family savings were wiped out, homes foreclosed on, and jobs lost in a grinding time of bare survival for many, many Americans.  This program put young men to work in every state:  planting trees, preventing soil erosion, and building the infrastructure for parks.  The young men worked in well-disciplined crews for eight hours a day, five days a week, and earned wages of about $30 per week, of which $25 was to be sent home to help support their struggling families.  Evenings were spent in educational classes and sports.  The CCC ended in the early part of World War II as the nation’s priorities shifted from beating the Depression to winning the War.  The “CCC boys” left a legacy of beautiful, rustic buildings in parks all over America—buildings that used logs and stones to create our shared sense of what a park building should look like.  And what a fine tribute the buildings of Caddo Lake State Park are to the young people who built them in a tough era!

During my two days at Caddo Lake, I spent a lot of time photographing the old CCC cabins and pavilion—both in living digital color and on traditional black-and-white infrared film (which I have not yet developed but will soon).  The infrared film turns foliage a ghostly white, lending a mystic atmosphere to the photograph, which I think is particularly suited to the historic structures.  Infrared light is a different range of wavelengths than visible light, and it actually focuses at a different point, so I have to adjust the focus on each exposure.  I also use a very deep red, nearly opaque filter for this film.  I’ll post the results when I can.

I am also a casual birdwatcher, not too serious about it because intense concentration on birds would mean less concentration on photography.  But I did note the following special birds in the Baldcypress swamp:  Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Wood Duck, and Pileated Woodpecker.

This would be a great park for canoeing, and there are canoes for rent.  Next time.  Word has it that campers can canoe to a place and purchase a few pounds of cooked crawfish to bring back for supper.  Sounds delicious. 

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.