Guest Opinions

In defense of the Owyhee Initiative

Brenda Richards
Brenda Richards

No surprise to see the attack by Western Watersheds and Wilderness Watch on the Idaho-based Owyhee Initiative regarding wilderness management in Owyhee County. From day one some groups opposed the collaborative effort to resolve public land controversies in Owyhee County, and those attacks continue as the participants in the initiative continue to work together to solve problems.

The Owyhee Initiative is a broad-based collaborative that has worked for over 15 years to reach common ground on key public land issues in Owyhee County. Groups range from the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association and Owyhee Farm Bureau to The Wilderness Society and The Nature Conservancy, and include livestock groups, recreationists, sportsmen, outfitters and other interests.

In 1984, Congress issued guidance regarding livestock grazing in wilderness. Bottom line was that if livestock management activities were occurring in an area prior to wilderness designation, without disqualifying that area’s candidacy for wilderness, then the expectation was those activities could be allowed to continue after wilderness designation.

Fence repair, stock pond maintenance and moving livestock are all part of a rancher’s work to comply with their public land grazing permit. These activities are often done with the use of a motorized vehicle. Obviously in wilderness, the use of motorized vehicles is the exception rather than the rule. The picture painted by opponents of livestock grazing in wilderness is one of ranchers using a motorized vehicle anywhere, anytime. That is not and never has been the case, especially in the areas designated as wilderness in Owyhee County.

After the wilderness in the Owyhee Canyonlands was designated in 2009, the BLM adopted wilderness management policies that differed from those that were in place at time of designation. These new policies put the intent of Owyhee Initiative at odds with the agency. Specifically, a conflict arose in those cases where the practice of using a motorized vehicle to move cattle was part of an existing grazing operation occurring at the time the wilderness areas were designated. The Owyhee Initiative Board went to Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and asked the senator to correct this through legislation. Crapo introduced legislation that reiterated the expectations that the occasional use of motorized vehicles for livestock management practices in wilderness occurring at the time of designation would be allowed to continue.

S. 1167 was introduced and a hearing held this past spring. Crapo’s staff worked with both Republican and Democratic members and staff to achieve a successful bipartisan compromise. The compromise produced language requiring consistency with the Wilderness Act and an analysis of impacts. S. 1167 passed out of committee with no objections in mid-July. This is how Congress should work, and we congratulate all the members and staff who rolled up their sleeves and made this happen.

There will always be critics of collaboration and compromise, especially those that are successful. We are proud the Owyhee Initiative stands in contrast to endless lawsuits and unsettled controversy and proves to be a better approach to management of our shared public lands.

Rancher Brenda Richards is Owyhee Initative chairperson and Craig Gehrke is co-chair and state director of The Wilderness Society. Also contributing are other members of the Owyhee Initiative Executive Committee.