We hear a lot about the custom, culture and tradition of livestock ranching, and we’ve all seen the images of the chap-wearing cowboy mounted proudly on his horse riding behind his herd.
But these days, it seems, Idaho’s Owyhee country cowboys aren’t so rugged. They’ve asked for special legislation allowing them to have virtually unlimited use of motor vehicles in the six Owyhee Canyonlands wildernesses, putting wilderness protection at risk across the country and undermining the existing rules that allow motorized use for grazing purposes only where and when it’s necessary — the same rules that govern wilderness cowboys everywhere else in the West.
The new bill, S.1167, sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, would not only allow ranchers to drive trucks, ATVs, motorcycles and other vehicles into wilderness, but also remove the management authority of the Bureau of Land Management to decide where motorized use is permissible. The ink has barely dried on BLM’s new management plan to govern these wildernesses, issued after three years of public involvement. It should be given time to work before being undermined.
The agency itself testified in Congress against the bill, explaining that S.1167 would undermine “the longstanding definition and spirit of wilderness as established in the Wilderness Act of 1964.” Twenty-six conservation groups have also opposed the bill, so why are groups such as The Wilderness Society in support? We think that they are more concerned about bringing back provisions of the deal they struck with ranchers, provisions that were rightly rejected by Congress when the final wilderness language was approved in the 2009 bill creating the wildernesses. Is deal-making more important than the conservation of these spectacular areas? Because The Wilderness Society made a Faustian bargain with a handful of Owyhee ranchers, do they think the Owyhee wildernesses and the American public should have to suffer for it?
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If Owyhee ranchers don’t want to walk or climb into the saddle and ride into the wilderness, they should consider taking advantage of a grazing buyout option that was authorized by the enabling bill. Private parties stand at the ready to give Owyhee ranchers a fair price to relinquish their grazing permits and restore these desert wildernesses from harmful livestock grazing impacts. Rather than weakening wilderness by allowing additional motorized incursions, our legislators should instead support strengthening wilderness by getting the nonnative domestic livestock off. The bill would also set a dangerous precedent for all wildernesses in the U.S. where ranchers still abide by longstanding motorized restrictions.
Having cows in wilderness is compromise enough; having cowboys riding noisy motor vehicles is a bridge too far. S.1167 should be roundly opposed by anyone who cares about the integrity of wilderness laws.
Ken Cole is Idaho director for Western Watersheds Project, a regional conservation organization based in Hailey. Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national organization based in Missoula, Mont.