After eight years of fighting, compromise, setback and small victories, the members of the Owyhee working group were ready to celebrate when they gathered at Lisk Gallery on Tuesday, April 14.
Surrounded by photographer Mark Lisk’s large-format images of the Owyhee canyonlands, the diverse members of the group met to mark the final passage of the Owyhee Initiative as part of the Omnibus Federal Lands Bill, creating 500,000 acres of protected wilderness and more than 300 miles of wild and scenic rivers in the arid southwestern corner of the state.
It’s the first time in nearly 30 years that a new wilderness area has been created in Idaho, and the occasion drew everyone from Sen. Mike Crapo—who championed the bill through Congress—to Owyhee County Ranchers and conservationists.
The unlikely group came together to address a laundry list of problems facing the Owyhees, from the propagation of illegal roads leading to major problems with erosion, exponential growth among users and conflicts between ranchers and conservationists.
The fact that the group made up of individuals who could barely be in the same room together at the start of the process, wasn’t lost on those who spoke at the gallery reception.
“We had a very unique groups of human beings,” said Fred Grant, whom many credit with being the driving force behind the initiative. “We had to find a way to make all of the interests work.”
While long and at times strained, the process created a compromise in which every side got at least a little of what they wanted while protecting the area. It’s now being touted as a model of how decisions about public lands should be made in the future.
“This is a pattern,” Crapo said, adding that many of his Congressional peers have expressed interest in how the initiative was created.
“It’s so significant in the way it was developed,” he said. “This is a gift to the nation.”
Ted Howard, a member of the Shoshone Paiute Tribes shared the sacred nature of the Owyhees with the gathered stakeholders and media.
“If you look back seven generations and look at how things have deteriorated, it’s scary to think what we will have in seven generations if we don’t change,” he said.
When describing an early discussion about resource management, Howard said, “resources will do fine on their own, they always have. What we have to do is manage people.”
Members of the working group seemed ready to move to the next step in the process now that the initiative has made it through the Congressional process. The group will now serve as an oversight committee as the details of the bill are hammered out and specific management plans are made.
“The important thing is how we move forward from this point,” Howard said.
Before the gathered working group members signed a copy of the final bill, Crapo touted the message the process sent to the rest of the nation.
“[The people of Idaho] have the character and caliber to achieve this dream,” he said.