Western ranchers fight for a new deal on wilderness

The Owyhee plan would designate 517,000 Idaho acres as federal wilderness and put other public land up for sale.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Sagebrush: About 517,000 acres of Idaho's Owyhee County would be declared wilderness.
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Rancher Mike Hanley may have to sell half his cattle after losing permission last week to graze them on a piece of public land. His wife has spent sleepless nights thinking over their options.

Uncertainty has become a way of life for a generation of ranchers here, locked in a long-running battle with environmentalists wanting to restrict grazing on public lands. The ranchers' fight, dubbed the sagebrush rebellion, has played out in communities up and down the mountain West.

The Hanleys are pinning their hopes on a treaty of sorts called the Owyhee Initiative. The deal, hashed out over years of negotiation between ranchers, conservationists, and local officials, will be presented at a congressional hearing Tuesday. It would set aside 517,000 acres in Idaho's Owyhee County as federal wilderness, while removing restrictions on or selling other public land.

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It's one of a number of land-use deals heading for Congress that would break a dearth in new wilderness designations. Legislators may be wowed to see Stetson hats and environmentalists both pushing the same bill. But consensus isn't total: some warn that the concept of wilderness is being watered down in a rush to compromise.

"I suspect that the easy [wilderness designations] were done years ago. Any new ones would likely be much more complex and require a more complicated collaborative process," says John Hoehne, chief of staff for Sen. Mike Crapo (R) of Idaho, who supports the plan. "It's very clear that many areas particularly of the West are aware of the [Owyhee] effort and I'm sure they are watching to see if there is anything they can learn and apply."

Senator Crapo's support is crucial since western senators have kept new wilderness designations off the table for decades in many states. Now Idaho could see two new designations – Owyhee and Boulder-White Clouds. Wild Sky in Washington may become the state's first new wilderness area in about 20 years. Negotiations are moving ahead in Montana.

Owyhee County lies on 5 million acres of southwest Idaho, where bighorn sheep roam the high desert and rivers fork and twist in canyons below.

Unlike traditional wilderness designations, these deals are comprehensive land-management plans that seek to balance diverse interests.

The Owyhee Initiative swaps lands with ranchers, protects Shoshone-Paiute sites, regulates off-highway-vehicle (OHV) trails, and expands recreation and fire-management access. The Boulder-White Clouds deal even offers public land to private developers. Critics call it "quid pro quo wilderness."

But it's the status quo that's brought both groups to the table.

Ranchers are seeing their grazing options litigated away by environmentalists outside the talks. They also worry about the next president resurrecting Bill Clinton's plans to turn the Owyhee into a national monument– prohibiting grazing.

Conservationists want to manage the recreation influx. The Owyhee County sheriff estimates that five to 10 miles of backcountry trails a week get created by OHV riders going off established trails.

"We found that business as usual wasn't really working.... So it was time to pick up the phone and turn to our neighbors and find out if there is any common ground," says John Robison, head of the Idaho Conservation League. The Nature Conservancy, Wilderness Society, and The Campaign for America's Wilderness support the plan.

Environmentalists critical of it say these groups are anxious to secure deals to show donors or meet publicized targets. "My group, which monitors land exchanges and sales that the agencies do, has to shift a lot of what we do to watch-dogging these wilderness groups," says Janine Blaeloch, head of the Western Lands Project. "They've been pushing these deals where public land will be auctioned off, or given away, or traded away in a fast-tracked manner and cherry-picked by developers, in exchange for a wilderness designation."

The most aggressive environmental groups, critics say, were kept from negotiations. But conservationists who struck the deal say the "purists" forget that wilderness deals always work best with compromise and local buy-in.

"We want a strong economy. We live here. We're not hired guns who come in and grab wilderness and move on to the next project," says Liz Paul, of Idaho Rivers United.

Some "purists" are blunt about their disinterest in the needs of ranchers. "There's no reason that we the American people need to keep Mike [Hanley] in business in Owyhee County if the costs are as high as they are, in both dollars and [environmental] damage," says Jon Marvel, head of the Western Watersheds Project. "I suggest him moving to Nebraska, where there's a lot of grass."

Mr. Hanley has lived in the Owyhee region since he was a boy. Not yet 10 years old and on a cattle drive, he started jotting down campfire stories. Nearly 60 years later, he has become the chronicler of fellow cattlemen whose forefathers raised livestock here.

He and other ranchers reject the notion that their livelihood damages the land they hope will sustain their descendants.

"People are pretty upset about what's happened to us in the past 30, 40 years. This initiative is designed to bring some order back to the management of federal lands," says Hanley. "The people out here are the people who made America, and we feel like we've been ignored."

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