When President Barack Obama signed legislation creating three new designated wilderness areas of 275,665 acres in Idaho’s Boulder-White Cloud mountains and Jerry Peak earlier this month, he also opened up the potential for long-term protection of over 700,000 acres of public land within and adjacent to the new wilderness areas. That’s because the new law authorizes the relinquishment of any valid existing leases or permits authorizing grazing and requires that the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior accept the donated lease or permit and see that livestock grazing permanently ends.
This provision expands the effect of wilderness protection to afford additional conservation opportunities in the area defined as the Boulder White Clouds Grazing Area Map, specifically mentioned in and attached to the final law. The relinquishment area encompasses the lands around the new wilderness areas and stretches west to Stanley, north to Clayton, east to the confluence of the Big Lost River and Warm Springs Creek, and south to Sun Valley and Ketchum.
Closing grazing allotments on these vast areas would improve wildlife habitat, increase watershed health, protect soils, and enhance recreational and aesthetic enjoyment of these wild places by removing the degradation caused by cattle and sheep. It could mean the removal of miles of unnecessary fences, the restoration of creeks currently diverted for stock waters, and ensure that elk and deer won’t have to compete for food with domestic livestock.
Mandating permanent closure of waived permits through legislation enables private foundations like the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund to compensate permittees for the conservation value of the allotment. This type of payment can provide a substantial payout for ranchers who desire to give up their public land grazing permits.
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Many thanks are due to Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and his staff for recognizing this win-win solution to ending grazing conflict and enabling such a huge opportunity. Hopefully other legislators will see the same benefit and vote to pass the Rural Economic Vitalization Act (REVA), H.R. 3410, recently introduced by Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., which provides the opportunity to expand voluntary grazing permit retirement across the West.
This would be an enormous boon to solving public lands grazing conflicts and ensure healthier habitats for species such as wolves, anadramous fish, pygmy rabbits, greater sage grouse — and humans.
Travis Bruner is executive director of Western Watersheds Project.