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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.

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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.

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"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."