Filling the southwestern corner of Idaho, the Owyhees stand sentinel to the passage of time. While other places in the West have been tamed, covered with paved roads and subdivisions, the Owyhees have shown what—if this were an old Hollywood Western—would be called grit.
It's not the most welcoming landscape. Water is scarce, the climate extreme, and there's nothing soft about the place. Yet for those who have taken the time to really look, the Owyhees are filled with startling beauty, a place where the dramatic and iconic Western landscape breathes in living color.
They are colors found in the rolling hills of gold and sage, plunging sheer-walled canyons lined in hues of red and orange filled with untamed rivers that churn milky brown and translucent green and in the seemingly unending horizon melding every color from deep blue to orange, pink, red and purple.
It's a place that engenders great love and loyalty.
From the ranchers whose families have made a living off of the land for generations, to the hunter or rafter who finds solace in its solitude, many feel a sense of ownership when it comes to the Owyhees. But it's that protective nature that has also led to decades of contentious battles over how to preserve the high desert.
Now, the Owyhee canyonlands are poised to become the first designated wilderness in Idaho in almost three decades. The Owyhee Initiative has already passed the U.S. Senate as part of the Omnibus Lands Bill and is now awaiting action in the House. If approved, it will create more than 500,000 acres of wilderness, as well as more than 300 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers, while preserving grazing rights and recreational access.
It's a wilderness built on compromise. Ranchers have fought to protect their way of life, battling with conservation groups over cattle grazing and water rights. Conservationists have championed the uniqueness of the place, from the sensitive vegetation and waterways to the wildlife threatened by development. At the same time, recreationists vigilantly defended their rights to access. It's led to messy and very personal battles in which the state, federal government, nonprofit groups and private citizens have all traded blows.
But somehow, those sparring groups managed to check their egos and build a sometimes strained, yet lasting, partnership that led to the creation of a plan many hope will protect the Owyhees in perpetuity.
It's been a long road to the Owyhee Initiative, but after eight years, the plan is on the brink of final approval, and the process used to get there is being held up as an example of how federal land management decisions can be made in a way that satisfies all those concerned, without ignoring an overarching goal.
While the plan has had its detractors who claim it doesn't give enough protections, it's a rare example of how parties learned to compromise in order get something done. As the House mulls the bill, those who spent nearly a decade fleshing out a workable compromise are holding their collective breath.
"We're as optimistic as ever but, of course, patience has been a big part of that," said John Robison, public lands director at the Idaho Conservation League, one of the groups that supports the initiative.
That need for patience started eight years ago when an unlikely group first came together to find a solution for what to do with the Owyhees. With a combination that included Owyhee County ranchers, conservationists and recreational user groups, no one was quite sure what to expect.
"They had been fighting each other for years," said Jerry Hoagland, an Owyhee County commissioner and a lifelong cattle rancher.
"We didn't think it would work," admitted Craig Gehrke, regional director of the Wilderness Society. "[We'd been] trading barbs for so many years with Owyhee County. Harsh things were said all the way around.
"It took a long time for everyone to get off their high horse," he said.
They had little to no trust in each other at first, but there was one thing in which all parties could agree: The status quo in the Owyhees wasn't working, and if something wasn't done soon, the area would be destroyed.
With explosive growth in the nearby Treasure Valley, pressure on the ecosystem in the Owyhees has been on the rise as more people head to the desert. While many are respectful of the place, others see it as wasteland with which they can do what they want.
This attitude has led to the uncontrolled propagation of new roads and trails, which has in turn led to fragmentation of the desert, as well as major issues with erosion in a deceivingly delicate landscape. Combined with trash, reckless behavior and a disregard for private property, it's led to a growing nightmare for the county, of which roughly 70 percent is federal land and 15 percent state land with a population of only approximately 10,000.
Additionally, the Shoshone-Paiute tribes were seeing increased vandalism and desecration of some of their sacred sites, and conservation groups were also raising concerns about the effects of grazing in certain sensitive areas.
The problems were ones which all concerned parties felt needed to be stopped. With that one point of agreement behind them, the working group started talking.
The group came together at the urging of the Owyhee County Commission, which took the advice of attorney Fred Grant, whom many credit with being the driving force behind the initiative. Grant's idea was born out of opposition to an earlier proposal to turn the majority of the Owyhees—and thereby roughly 85 percent of Owyhee County—into a national monument.
Under national monument status, grazing would have been vastly curtailed and possibly eliminated, as would access to much of the area.
"[It] would have been totally destructive of the county and our way of life," Hoagland said, adding that ranching makes up the largest portion of the tax base for the sparsely populated county.
The measure was narrowly defeated, but it was enough to force local leaders to take action.
While conservation groups like the Wilderness Society had supported the monument, many saw the value of looking at the idea of wilderness designation, and in Gehrke's case, wilderness actually came out looking like the better option.
County officials realized they would never be able to create a plan that was acceptable to all interested parties by themselves. Despite their differences, they would have to include everyone. They approached Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo with the idea, and he agreed to champion the bill at the federal level as long as the final product represented the interests of all parties.
Crapo had not supported the national monument but was open to other options.
"We have had conflict in the Owyhees in one form or another for decades, and it was really time for something to happen," Crapo said. "No one was happy with how things were working out. It was creating gridlock that was not good for anybody.
"Frustration on the part of all of the parties resulted in a willingness to try," he said.
Those tenuous first meetings were full of small but measurable successes.
"You don't know how many Rolaids we went through," Gehrke said. "We went in with low expectations, but enough positive [was] coming out to continue."
Of course, the mark of a successful meeting at the beginning was if no one threw a chair, Gehrke said.
But slowly, they began to find common ground.
"There was a lot of discussion and, finally, over time, trust was built among all the groups, and that trust was key to getting to where we are today," Hoagland said.
One of the keystones to building that trust was a series of field trips into the Owyhees during which each side had the chance to have experts speak about various issues of concern. Something amazing happened: The usually warring factions started listening to each other and trying to understand the other perspective. Ranchers explained their concerns about range quality, water and vandalism, while the conservationists elaborated on fears about noxious weeds, threatened species like sage grouse and the lasting effect of trail-building.
"It's easier to be frank and honest when you're sitting on a canyon rim," Gehrke said.
"What it really amounted to is that we're all really on the same page," Hoagland said. "We want nearly the same thing. Once that trust and that idea was built, we started working out the details."
In the process of working through those details—some of the most explosive issues in Western politics, like cattle grazing, water rights and endangered species—the Owyhees Initiative working group was taking control of the federal lands management decision process and putting power in the hands of those most affected by those decisions.
"The county and all other players would have a collaborative process to stake out an Idaho position on the future management of public lands in Owyhee County rather than having something rammed down Idaho's throat," said Grant Simonds, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association.
"It's a grass-roots Idaho approach to resolving long-standing issues," he said. "That's why it has worked."
It's also why the initiative has been supported by an array of varying interest groups, including the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, the Idaho 4x4 Association, the Owyhee Cattlemen's Association, Idaho Steelhead and Salmon United, Idaho Water Users, the American Whitewater Association, Mountain Home Air Force Base, the Idaho State Land Board, The Nature Conservancy, The Sierra Club, Idaho Rivers United, Southern Idaho Desert Racing Association, Idaho Cattlemen's Association and the Wilderness Society.
"[The group] basically represented mainstream Idaho as it relates to Idaho's federal lands," Simonds said. "We had our critics, both from the far left and the far right, but the mainstream has been at the table."
Of course, not everyone was invited to that table. One notable exclusion was Western Watersheds Project. The group has been one of the most vocal opponents to grazing in the West, championing an end to all grazing on public lands. The position has put the group at opposite ends of the debate with Owyhee County for decades.
The exclusion was quite deliberate on the part of organizers.
"It all depends on the personalities involved," Simonds said. "If you've got can-do folks at the table, then collaboration is going to have more of a chance of succeeding."
But Katie Fite, biodiversity director for Western Watersheds, calls the initiative "an assault on public lands" and questions the motivation behind leaving her group out of the discussion.
"It was not collaborative," she said. "[We are the] only group that would say a peep about cows.
"It was collaborative only among the group of hand-picked people who agreed to go along with what the cowboys wanted," Fite said.
She maintains that the initiative chisels away at the concept of public lands. "Public lands belong to all [of us]. Someone in New York has as much interest in the Owyhees as someone who lives there," Fite said. "If you elevate the interests of the locals, [it is] a way to undercut the interests of everybody in the land."
But even some of those in the conservation community aren't surprised by the exclusion.
"[Western Watersheds is] always very upfront with their opposition to public lands grazing," Gehrke said. "You have to follow through with what you say. If you're in love with your own voice, then you have to live with your press quotes."
Gehrke said that Fite did not attend any of the four public input meetings the working group hosted, nor did the group submit any comments to the county during the process.
Fite said she attended several meetings but was under a virtual gag order at one of them. She said she offered testimony at a meeting held in Boise and continually asked to attend a working group meeting. She said permission was finally granted, but under the prerequisite that she could not speak at the meeting.
"We got to sit around and listen to them wheel and deal and give away wilderness," Fite said, maintaining that the Wilderness Society and Idaho Conservation League are "lying" about Western Watersheds' interest in the project.
But Gehrke said Watersheds should not have been surprised by the lack of welcome.
"Would anyone really expect a rural county to invite a group who has said they don't want livestock grazing?" he asked.
"We had to have people willing to talk and give and take," Hoagland said.
It's a personal issue for Hoagland and other residents of Owyhee County. Hoagland's family came to the area in the 1930s and has run a cattle ranch there ever since.
"From the rancher and resident and county commissioner perspective, it's our culture, our heritage, our lifestyle, and we want to be able to continue that," he said.
"I think they did a phenomenal job," said Aden Seidlitz, district manager for the Bureau of Land Management's Boise District, which includes the Owyhees. "You do have to bring a group of people together who are willing to listen to each other and compromise a little and take a wholistic view of what's good."
The Fine Print
While the initiative is on the verge of becoming reality, many of the details are still a work in progress.
While the bill lays out stipulations for what land will become wilderness, which wilderness study areas will be released to general BLM management and which portions of the Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbidge river systems will be designated Wild and Scenic, specifics on water rights, private inholdings within wilderness areas and management specifics aren't set in stone.
Under the plan, 517,000 acres in the Owyhees would become designated wilderness. Much of this area is centered on the river canyons, and a large portion is already held in wilderness study areas—pockets the BLM must manage as if it were wilderness. Roughly 200,000 acres of WSA will revert to general BLM land, ending the patchwork of management levels across the area.
While Robison said conservation groups would have liked more of these areas to be included in the wilderness, it was part of a larger good-faith effort to help secure the designation for more critical areas.
An additional 316 miles of rivers will be given protections. Under the bill, portions of waterways will be classified as either wild, scenic or recreational, with wild designation dictating the strictest regulations and recreational the least.
The sections are not contiguous, allowing ranchers and property owners access to portions of the rivers, while recreationists can enjoy a more pristine experience in other areas.
"It's tailored to a unique place," Simonds said.
- Laurie Pearman
- Craig Gehrke found greater rewards in the initiative process.
The initiative also guarantees permanent access via the majority of the established roads in the area. More than 10,000 miles of roads—most of which are dirt—will remain open to public access. Several hundred miles of roads will be closed to vehicles, but the majority of these have been created within the last decade. Ranchers in the area are helping to identify which roads are long established and which are recent additions.
Because of the vast and secluded nature of the Owyhees, maintaining quality access is of particular importance. "What good is this land if you can't get to it?" Robison asked.
Simonds added that roughly 90 percent of wilderness area will be within two miles of a road, ensuring access for recreational users.
With BLM resources already stretched thin, Seidlitz said officials will have to take a careful look at how to implement the plan. The agency is already working on a travel plan to deal with the proliferation of roads in the area as part of a larger federal decree.
The issue of ever-expanding roads is one that is at the heart of the issue for all of the groups involved in the initiative.
"Everyone has a right to use public lands, but no one has the right to abuse it," Robison said.
"If you ask any land manager in the state or federal [government], 'Is [current motorized use] sustainable and well managed?' No, they're getting run over—literally and figuratively," he said.
Robison said the working group was told that county officials estimate that 5 miles of new tracks and roads are created every week during the summer. Hoagland added that roughly 43 acres of vegetation are lost each year—an overwhelming amount in the dry high desert. "The current status quo isn't working," he said.
"It's interrupting the recreation of those who are using the land responsibly, whether it be hunters, dispersed campers [or others]," Simonds said, describing a common tale among hunters who have spent several months scouting an area only to arrive on opening day to find a four-wheeler riding cross-country and scaring off the game.
Several off-highway vehicle groups have signed on in support of the effort, repeatedly asserting that it's a minority of OHV users who cause the majority of the problems. The initiative will allow them to still use the area roads, while improving signage.
The challenge will be to create an improved travel plan without losing the wild nature of the area by posting signs every 10 feet.
"We don't want it tamed and developed," Robison said.
The Grazing Question
Wilderness designation does allow cattle grazing, something that would have been eliminated under national monument status. It's a distinction that earned the support of many ranchers in the area.
"We're not going to get any wilderness designation without working with the ranchers," Robison said.
According to the BLM, there are 150 grazing allotments under the oversight of the Owyhee field office, and another 40 allotments in the Bruneau field office.
Under the initiative, areas where there is currently no grazing will never see it, and any grazing allotments that are retired by the holder will not be offered to other grazers.
The working group is hoping to raise private funds to help buy out grazing rights from permittees covering roughly 55,000 acres of the Owyhees.
For ranchers, the designation provides some certainty that they will be able to continue raising cattle, said Chad Gibson, who represented the Owyhee Cattlemen's Association in the working group.
And while grazing is protected, Gibson said many ranchers would have liked to have had stronger protections in writing. "It doesn't go as far as they would like, but it's a significant improvement over what we've got," he said.
It's these allocations for grazing with which Western Watersheds takes the most issue.
"It's based not on protecting the land ... but based on giving the ranchers what they will agree to give up for a handsome package," Fite said, adding that it will embolden ranchers to intensify grazing levels.
She said such allowances for activities within the wilderness degrade the nature of the Wilderness Act, adding that Western Watersheds still strongly favors national monument status and its far greater restrictions.
The initiative sets out guidelines to deal with private inholdings of land within the wilderness. While owners are guaranteed property rights and access, Gehrke and others hope to secure public right of way, and ideally, to raise private funds to buy the property and turn it into wilderness.
Some have criticized the plan for not establishing the cost of these parcels, but group members said the bill states that any land exchanges or sales will follow the established government procedure, which includes a sometimes lengthy appraisal process.
Fite takes issue with the lack of clear language in the bill, calling it "a series of backdoor deals which hasn't been put in front of the public."
One area the initiative only tip-toed around was water rights. The issue is one that has dominated Western politics throughout history, and one so sensitive the working group side-stepped it. While some water rights are guaranteed for future development, the initiative basically stops there, simply stating that existing senior water rights take precedence, and all issues will be settled in the Snake River Adjudication Court.
The initiative also calls for the creation of a science center, which organizers hope will help alleviate some of the legal wrangling that has gone on between ranchers and the BLM for decades.
"[Ranchers] didn't feel the BLM was using the best science possible [in land management decisions]," Gehrke said.
The science center would not be a physical facility, but the University of Idaho would assemble independent experts who would look into issues brought to the work group.
But Fite calls the center "a taxpayer-funded boondoggle," adding that "ranchers want to use public money for predetermined studies that say cows aren't harming anything."
Gehrke said it isn't a matter of a witch hunt of BLM scientists, but rather resting fears through independent eyes. "We're not here to screw the BLM," he said.
The BLM will bear the bulk of the responsibility for managing the new wilderness area, meaning increased need for education and enforcement across the area from an already-strapped staff.
Currently, the roughly 2.6 million acre area—including both the Owyhee and Bruneau field offices—is covered by 16 employees with a $1.26 million budget, according to the BLM.
While the initiative allocates $8 million to $10 million in one-time funds, there is no stipulation for the actual appropriation of those funds nor for any continued funding. It's something that worries those who will be charged with managing the area.
"We would have to have additional funding, and I'm worried about that," Seidlitz said. "Congress can do this until they're blue in the face, but it doesn't do us any good unless they appropriate some money."
The BLM will also take over the bulk of search and rescue duties from the county. Hoagland said that after recouping as much of the cost as possible, Owyhee County spends between $4,000 and $5,000 each year pulling people out of the desert.
The working group would continue to serve as a review panel. While it would not have the power to overrule any BLM decision, it could serve as an advisory group to make sure the goals of the Owyhee Initiative are being carried out.
Gehrke said many of the issues that were not taken up in the final bill will still be on the table with the working group, including working toward further protections.
It's a whole lot of attention being paid to a dry corner of an isolated state, but the desire to protect the area is deep-seated among many.
"It's simply some of the most spectacular landscapes in the West," Robison said.
A Model for the Future
The Owyhee Initiative has led to more than just protection for the Owyhees. It is serving as a model for how land management decisions can be made effectively.
"Good or bad, it shows a way to get something like this done," Gehrke said. "It requires getting that buy-in from the local citizens that are most directly affected."
Already, the Wilderness Society is working in a similar process in the Clearwater area in Northern Idaho.
"We're certainly not above criticism," Gehrke said. "We made the decision that there is an overall gain, and the overall benefits outweigh the detriments."
Crapo agreed, adding that even where there are no agreements, the trust built between groups can lead to future breakthroughs.
"There are still a lot of land management and environmental conflicts going on in the country, and we need some successes like this to give confidence to people that they can achieve [their goals]," he said.
As the Lands Bill awaits House approval, Crapo said he feels confident that it has the support of the Obama administration. He is now focused on what happens if the House changes the bill, once again opening it to the threat of filibuster in the Senate.
While all parties involved in the working group are pleased with the final bill, all said it isn't the document they would have written had it been up to them alone. Crapo would have liked stronger protections for state sovereignty water rights. Gehrke said he would have wanted more wilderness with more protections for endangered species. The ranching community would have written in further protections of grazing rights.
But while no one fully got their way, everyone got something and managed to get beyond an unending lineup of litigation.
"All interests were represented well in the final bill," Crapo said. "If you don't reach out and get every interest at the table, those left out will exert their political interest because they don't have the buy-in."
Gehrke called the Owyhee Initiative "one of the most rewarding things I've ever done."
Both sides of the issue learned from each other, and Gehrke said that trust was at least built between individuals, if not organizations. "They know we're going to work to solve everyone's issues, not just ours," he said. "It couldn't be every dog for themselves or it would have fallen apart pretty quickly, then it just falls back to what had been happening, which was nothing."
For many of those involved, the Owyhee Initiative rose above decades-long disagreements and institutional goals.
"It's not just about landscape or wilderness or wildlife protection, but protecting a way of life out there," Robison said. "This is a unique Idaho solution where everyone involved benefits."