Rocky Barker: Owyhee ranchers, preservationists stick together

rbarker@idahostatesman.comApril 28, 2014 

You don't see crowds of backpackers, floaters or even horse packers flooding the new Owyhee wilderness areas that were designated in 2009.

The areas are getting some increased use, but the main users of most of these desolate 517,000 acres of sagebrush sea, mahogany highlands and canyon lands are the ranchers who were using the rangeland before Congress added them to the nation's wilderness inventory. Without those ranchers' support, there would be no Owyhee wilderness.

That support was earned by individual conservationists, Craig Gehrke of The Wilderness Society and John McCarthy, then with the Idaho Conservation League. They were told by Owyhee County officials that every rancher in a proposed wilderness area had to sign on before the Owyhee Initiative group would back it.

The Wilderness Act, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, specifically allows grazing to continue in the manner it was practiced when an area is designated. That meant ranchers could continue to use their trucks and jeeps to fix and build fence, check on their reservoirs, distribute salt blocks - even round up their herds.

Since these actions were infrequent, they were not considered a threat to the areas that were protected. Without those assurances, there would not have been a Wilderness Act.

The legislative history of wilderness designations has preserved such provisions in bills that create wilderness. Those were the assurances Gehrke and McCarthy made to Owyhee ranchers.

Some Owyhee ranchers used motorcycles and four-wheelers to herd and round up cattle. The Bureau of Land Management took a careful inventory of the existing practices so a record would exist in the event of a dispute.

Language in the House committee report specifically recognized that existing practices of ranchers were allowed in the 2009 legislation squired through Congress by Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo.

Last week, the BLM released its final decision for wilderness management in the Owyhees. There is no reference to the specific assurances ranchers were given throughout the collaborative and the legislative process. In fact, the management plan says the BLM will require ranchers to get BLM authorization for existing range improvements and any use of motorized vehicles.

What happened next showed the power of collaboration. The Owyhee Initiative group, including environmental groups, ranchers, motorized interests, hunters, local officials and others, wrote the Idaho delegation asking for new legislation that clarifies the original intent to allow grazing to continue as stated.

"We still stand by that," Gehrke said.

But it's not just his word. It's the commitment of powerful national environmental groups.

"This was fundamental to the overall agreement," said Lou Lunte, of the Nature Conservancy of Idaho.

Acting BLM State Director Tim Murphy said the wilderness plan allows ranchers to continue the activities they have used in the past but directs the agency to analyze the impacts just as it would for other groups. This analysis, he said, would take into account the House report.

Which would be fine if someone were proposing new motorized or mechanized use in these wilderness areas.

"We're not asking for anything new," said Brenda Richards, chair of the Owyhee Initiative.

Murphy said he understands the desire for a legislative fix, which also includes minor boundary changes.

"There is a tremendous amount of respect by myself and the people of the BLM for the collaborative effort of these people," he said.

But there are groups and people who don't respect their work and would like to undercut the agreements that go beyond wilderness. These folks, including the leaders of the Western Watersheds Project, want to end grazing not just in the wilderness, but on public lands across the West.

If agreements that honor both the original intent and spirit of the law don't hold up, don't expect stakeholders to come to the table next time.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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