MARSING - You wouldn't have known from Owyhee County rancher Dennis Stanford's presentation Wednesday about reseeding after a range fire that he is facing orders to remove up to half his cattle from public land.
Stanford is one of the ranchers the Bureau of Land Management told in January to reduce their seasonal grazing to meet rangeland health standards. He also is one of the key proponents of the Owyhee Initiative, formed by Owyhee County more than a decade ago to bring ranchers together with groups such as the Idaho Conservation League and the Nature Conservancy to protect wilderness and ranching.
The grazing cuts came as a result of an order by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill, who ruled in a lawsuit by Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group that opposes grazing. Winmill ordered the BLM to update the grazing permits to show the agency was meeting its standards for rangeland health, guidelines to ensure that the desert ecosystem is functioning. The standards help agency scientists determine that native grasses and shrubs are healthy, streamside areas and watersheds are thriving, and habitat for sage grouse and other endangered species is protected.
Many observers predicted the BLM's grazing orders would break up the collaboration, which helped Republican Sen. Mike Crapo get a bill passed by Congress in 2009 to protect 517,000 acres of wilderness and provide help to ranchers and other groups.
"There is a lot of tension," said Brenda Richards, Owyhee County treasurer and a rancher who still serves as chairman of the Owyhee Initiative. "If you had your job and your children's education at stake, think about how you would feel."
But the Initiative Board and its conservation members signed a letter to the BLM, expressing concerns over its decisions to limit grazing to comply with Winmill's order.
"They stepped up," said Richards, who kicked off a series of presentations on desert restoration Wednesday at the American Legion Hall.
The initiative, grazing groups, conservation groups and the University of Idaho organized this week's meetings that brought the sides together to work on restoration projects they can all agree on.
"This is a bright spot," Richards said, "where people are able to leave that tension at the door."
Stanford talked about how the reseeding that ranchers and conservationists did after the 2007 Cow Creek fire has helped provide cover for sage grouse and forage for cows.
BLM acting state Director Tim Murphy spoke of the success of rural fire associations organized by ranchers to respond to range fires.
Art Talsma of the Nature Conservancy shared tips he learned working with rancher Dave Bunker for getting sagebrush and other native plants to grow after encroaching junipers were removed. University of Idaho ecologists offered the latest research findings, including evidence that sagebrush and other native plants don't grow back when thick stands of juniper burn hot, killing seeds and reducing soil productivity.
Jason Pyron, a biologist and sage grouse coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the people in the room agree that fire and invasive species are the main threat to the bird, which his agency is deciding whether to list as an endangered species.
"We can agree on 80 percent of what needs to be done," Pyron said. "We need to focus on the 80 percent instead of the 20 percent."
Still, Stanford couldn't help getting in a controversial message that is central to ranchers' argument on the grazing issue.
"I really believe that livestock grazing is the only way we are going to keep catastrophic fires from burning up all the sage grouse habitat," he said.
The conservation representatives, the BLM and the researchers who were at the meetings do agree that keeping ranchers on the land is important.
"If they are out there on that landscape, being that steward, then sage grouse will be there too," Pyron said.
But one group was not in the room. Members of Western Watersheds Project, the group whose lawsuits have forced the cutbacks, view the issue very differently.
They point to long-term erosion problems that have lowered the water table around many streams where cattle congregate. Such streamside areas are oases of life in the desert that support a range of fish and wildlife.
Ken Cole, Western Watershed's national environmental policy act coordinator, said many of the restoration projects obscure the central issue.
"They're not addressing the real problem," Cole said. "They are addressing the symptoms of the real problem, which is grazing."
Western Watersheds doesn't get involved in restoration programs, he said, because that's the job of the BLM. "I believe in passive restoration," he said.
He points to a recent deal by the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund to retire the grazing rights of two ranchers at the 45 Ranch on 203 square miles in the Owyhee Wilderness as the kind of work his group supports.
But those kinds of buyouts show what's wrong with the Owyhee Initiative, said Republican Rep. Judy Boyle. Retiring grazing rights was authorized in the law that created the wilderness and was supported by Owyhee ranchers.
"The Owyhee Initiative allowed for these buyouts to occur," Boyle said. "What have (ranchers) gained out of this and what has the resource gained?"
Others have criticized the initiative's track record because some of the spending authorized in the law has never been appropriated, in part because of budget cuts. Money for the Shoshone Paiute Tribe to protect its religious sites has not been forthcoming. A Science Review and Restoration Center, to have been operated by the University of Idaho, has never been built.
But the U of I has funded a Rangeland Center, with research projects across Owyhee County. BLM State Director Murphy suggested a new BLM office could be built with a home for the center and a gateway to the wilderness and wild rivers in Marsing.
"We need a place to come together on a daily basis, not just a scheduled meeting basis," Murphy said.
With anger at the BLM running high, Richards said, this might not be a good time to talk about such a plan. But she's still strongly committed to the Owyhee Initiative and said this week's sessions helped.
"The trickiest part is keeping this going," Richards said.
Stanford declined to discuss the BLM cutbacks. But despite the critics and the conflicts, he's still a supporter of the initiative.
"The extreme environmentalists want all livestock off, and we've got to make sure that doesn't happen," he said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484