Lake Lowell has been in the hearts of generations of Canyon County residents. It's where they escape for a little fishing, waterskiing or jet skiing. But it's also been an escape for wildlife for more than a century--a wet spot in the middle of the desert that draws migrating birds and wildlife.
It's this dual role of recreation hot spot and home of the Deer Flat Wildlife Refuge that has created both a balancing act and controversy as the refuge moves to create its first Comprehensive Conservation Plan.
While the CCP is a requirement of a 1997 federal law, it will likely mean a change in the way the lake is used by its human visitors, and it's that fact that has drawn attention from the public.
Refuge officials introduced a draft plan--which would affect all 11,000 acres of the refuge, including Lake Lowell and 101 islands on the Snake River--in July 2010, beginning a public comment process that has stretched beyond the government-mandated requirement. Jennifer Brown-Scott, refuge manager, said more than 1,000 comments were sent in between July and September 2010. Because of the heavy interest in the area, a second comment period was opened in May, and the refuge recently released a new set of recommendations it is considering based on feedback from comments.
While Brown-Scott said managers want a plan that maintains recreation on the lake, their first mandate is to manage for wildlife.
"As the law tells us, first and foremost, we need to meet the purpose of the refuge--to provide refuge and breeding grounds for migratory birds and other wildlife," she said. "We measure all other uses against that purpose."
Additionally, all recreational uses are not equal. As part of the refuge's guidelines, all wildlife-oriented activities are given preference over non-wildlife activities, which means fishing trumps jet skis.
It's something Brown-Scott calls managing for the "big six" public uses: hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, wildlife photography, environmental education and environmental interpretation.
"When we first started the planning process, we laid down on the map the highest-quality wildlife areas, what needed to be protected. Then we looked at where the big six activities are done, then we looked at other types of recreation," she said. "We're trying to make room for everything but still meet our purpose."
Brown-Scott called the balancing act "extremely challenging," adding that since wildlife refuges traditionally don't allow motorized activities, Deer Flat is already an oddity.
Still the area's history has a lot of impact on its future. Lake Lowell is a man-made lake, created by the Bureau of Land Management in the early part of the 1900s for irrigation. The area became one of the first wildlife refuges in the country in 1909. Last year alone, refuge managers estimate there were roughly 225,000 visits to the area.
Brown-Scott credited the users who have been active in planning meetings with helping build the foundation of a plan that will, ideally, allow for all uses at some level.
"The users really have the best understanding of the ways that they utilize the refuge," she said.
But one group questions whether the refuge even has the legal right to manage activities on the lake. Canyon County officials believe the refuge is overstepping its authority, and points to the fact that the lake was created for irrigation before it was wildlife habitat.
"The process is flawed, and we've developed an entire legal stance and let them know how we feel," said Canyon County Commissioner David Ferdinand. "We believe that the historic documentation and the Idaho State Supreme Court laid out what rights they have and they don't have. ... We are taking every legal means that we believe we need to maintain the rights of Canyon County citizens. ... They don't know who's house they're playing in out there."
Ferdinand argues that since area farmers originally paid to create the lake, and still pay for the irrigation water, the refuge has no right to say how the water is used.
"It's not their water," he said, adding that he feels the refuge hasn't proven it can maintain what it already has in the area.
"It's not that we don't love wildlife and we don't want to see the wildlife perpetuated," he said. "To have a federal agency come in and say you're not going to be able to do what you want to do ... it's not in their scope to do a Comprehensive Conservation Plan."
While Ferdinand said the county has given refuge officials a legal argument it has yet to hear response about, Scott-Brown said she's only aware of comments the county offered as part of the comment period, adding that the CCP process outlines that all substantive comments will be addressed in the final document.
She added that solicitors from the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the BLM have both offered formal opinions that the refuge does have the needed authority.
Scott-Brown also pointed out that any conservation plan legally could not affect or impede the use of irrigation water, adding that regulating surface uses also does not affect irrigation.
Scott-Brown said she understands the concerns, especially since the process is not done. At this point, public comments are still being accepted, and the refuge is maintaining a webpage and email list to keep the public up to date (fws.gov/deerflat/refugeplanning.html).
The draft plan, including three alternatives, is due to be released in the spring, after which another 60-day comment period will begin. A final plan will be published in the fall of 2012.
"Our overall goal is to provide purpose and duality and options for the public to recreate on the refuge and find a balance there," Scott-Brown said.