Guest Opinions

Despite critics, Owyhee Initiative has stood the test of time

Brenda Richards
Brenda Richards

One of the hardest but most necessary discussions Westerners must have involves management of public lands. Balancing the role public lands play in rural economies with the desire to recognize special places requires everyone to be solution-oriented, respectful of other views, and honest in efforts to achieve durable solutions.

Almost 15 years ago Idaho’s Owyhee County Commissioners launched such solution-oriented discussions with the Owyhee Initiative, an effort to bring diverse parties together to talk about the county’s economic foundation of livestock grazing, wilderness, and wild and scenic rivers. The result was a broad based agreement and legislation that recognized the importance of livestock grazing to Owyhee County and the importance of protecting the very best of the Owyhee Canyonlands. Since that success, the participants in the Owyhee Initiative continue to meet regularly to review and act upon implementation of the Owyhee Initiative. We knew early on that success depended upon all of us following through on our commitments to the effort. Just this spring, all the members of the Owyhee Initiative unanimously reaffirmed their commitment to the goals of the Owyhee Initiative. The Owyhee Initiative remains a collaboration success story.

Today our neighbors in Oregon are considering similar issues with their Owyhee landscape. It is disappointing that some are alleging partners in the Owyhee Initiative “did not keep their commitments” or that the Initiative “didn’t settle anything.”

Nothing is further from the truth. There is no question Owyhee County is better off because of the Owyhee Initiative. Of course there have been bumps on the road implementing the Owyhee Initiative. No effort to solve long standing conflicts can expect an easy path, which is why the Owyhee Initiative members agreed to stay together to watchdog implementation of the Initiative. We knew problems would develop and success required commitments from all the participants. There has never been a wavering in the commitment to make the Owyhee Initiative a success.

The Owyhee Initiative members all agreed the Initiative would not be able to address all issues affecting public lands in Owyhee County. That said, the Initiative has accomplished much. Revisions in the BLM’s wilderness management policies after passage of the legislation required the Initiative to unanimously urge the BLM to honor the original policies in place when the wilderness areas were created. The Initiative worked with the BLM to resolve discrepancies in wilderness boundaries and access routes. Over 200,000 acres of former wilderness study areas are now open for landscape scale actions such as juniper and fuel treatments. The Initiative sponsored over a dozen reviews of the science issues involved in making rangeland management decisions. Several livestock permittees voluntarily donated and were compensated by private dollars for donation of grazing permits in wilderness. Some private land owners with small, isolated inholdings within wilderness voluntarily sold those properties into public ownership. An ambitious effort to exchange isolated sections owned by the State of Idaho within or adjacent to wilderness required the Owyhee Initiative to meet with every grazing permittee affected by such an exchange to see how an exchange might affect that permittee’s grazing operation. The OI recognized that any successful land exchange depends upon each affected permittee determining how an exchange would affect their grazing operation and if they wanted to participate. The Initiative was proud to help facilitate those discussions.

Brenda Richards is an Owyhee County rancher, Owyhee County treasurer and chair of the Owyhee Initiative. Craig Gehrke is the director of The Wilderness Society’s Idaho Office and Vice Chair of OI..

Meeting on possible land use changes affecting Oregon Owyhees

Oregon elected officials are hosting a town hall meeting about land use in the Oregon Owyhees 6:30 tonight at the Adrian High School gymnasium (305 Owyhee Road) in Adrian, Ore. The purpose is to hear from people who would benefit or bear the “on the ground” consequences of any new proposed designation of lands in Malheur County.