Compromise rules in wilderness talks

Capital Press Staff Writer


OREANA, Idaho - Negotiations between ranchers, Owyhee County leaders, agencies and environmental groups over how much wilderness to set aside in the Owyhee country of southwest Idaho and southeast Oregon are going slowly.

A major hurdle: Environmentalists are unwilling to say how many acres of wilderness they want. Ranchers are equally unwilling to say how many acres they’ll give up until they know how those lands will be managed in the future, said Chad Gibson, retired county extension agent working on the Owyhee Initiative as a private consultant.

“I put together a wilderness management recommendation based on what is done in existing wildernesses managed by the Bureau of Land Management,” Gibson said. “Each wilderness was established by its own enabling act, which prescribes specific management for each area within the wilderness. However, BLM has only one policy for managing all wilderness, and that is often what the agency follows, regardless of what the enabling act says.

“We want to be sure whatever we agree to in an Owyhee wilderness enabling act is in fact followed,” Gibson told the Owyhee Cattlemens Association at their annual winter meeting in Oreana Feb. 8.

Initiative Project

Resolving the wilderness question is one of the first projects taken on by the initiative, a local effort launched to find solutions to resource issues in the Owyhees, Gibson said.

“Right now we have a lot of wilderness study areas with virtually no management in them,” he explained. “We’ve seen some grazing reductions in those areas that could have been cured if ranchers were allowed to develop springs and watering troughs.

The BLM’s interim policy for wilderness study areas says improvements can be installed to enhance wilderness as long as they don’t impair wilderness values,” Gibson added. “That’s really contradictory, and may be why the agency says they’re not going to do anything.

“Formal wilderness designation will come when Congress passes an enabling act,” Gibson said. “We want to be sure the language in that legislation allows us to continue appropriate management and properly managed grazing.”

Properly managed grazing includes grazing systems that would accomplish management objectives and new range improvements, Gibson said. It also includes documenting springs, stock ponds, reservoirs and other improvements already in the proposed wilderness areas, and establishing provisions allowing those facilities to be maintained.

The environmentalist groups are studying those ideas, Gibson said.

Allow Vehicles

“We also want to allow motorized vehicle use for managing grazing,” Gibson said. “The environmentalists are hesitant about that, but they need to accept that provision or assume they’re not going to get some areas they want us to agree to.”

Some environmentalists want juniper left alone in certain areas. Ranchers warned them some habitat and threatened or endangered species will be crowded out, said the consultant.

“There are those who understand, and others who say they don’t care; they simply don’t want anyone there,” he said.

“It’s interesting to hear what they don’t want in wilderness, yet look at what’s already in areas they say are suitable candidates,” Gibson said. “In one location, there are at least 40 stock watering tanks and roads leading to them, installed long before it became a wilderness study area,” he said.

Another goal is to make sure nobody goes back to Congress asking to add more land to the wilderness. Release language is being written, calling for returning the areas not set aside to multiple use, Gibson said.

“The environmental groups don’t think they can sell that idea to their national organizations,” Gibson said. “One practical side of going through Congress with this is that it makes it less likely these groups can get more. Our goal, and that of Congress right now, is to solve the problem, not have someone come back asking for more, dumping the same problem back on lawmakers’ doorsteps.”

Ranchers’ Effort

The Owyhee Initiative is the ranchers’ effort to insert their needs in land management policies, and to ensure the economic survivability of the ranches, said Charles Lyons, Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association president.

“My personal belief is that wilderness designation is a necessary part of managing the region, but the environmentalists don’t need the scope of country they asked for in the Canyonlands National Monument they almost got in the closing days of the Clinton Administration,” said Lyons, who ranches north of Mountain Home.

“If they’ll keep us on the land and economically viable, we’ll create and protect more wilderness than any formal designation can set aside.

If we’re not there, our private property will be sold off for development and subdivisions. That would ruin everything they want to protect,” he said.

“If you don’t maintain the economic value of open space, you lose it,” Lyons said. “Look at Yosemite National Park. They had to make that economically viable. That takes people, which takes away from what they’re trying to save.”

K Lynn Bennett, state BLM director, encouraged ranchers to participate in the initiative.

“I don’t know how popular it is with you folks, but it’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” Bennett said.

“You’ve got full cooperation on this from the office of U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho.) Come to the table,” Bennett said. “I shudder to think how close we came to having a national monument declared in Owyhee County at the end of the Clinton Era.”

BLM will fully participate and help ranchers find solutions to the region’s environmental issues, based on common sense and common ground, Bennett said.


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