The Air Force's decision Oct. 6 to back off on building a new bombing range in the Owyhee canyonlands is a victory - and therefore shocking.


Who would have thought that a coalition of local and national environmentalists, hunting groups and a few members of Congress could stop the military and Idaho's forceful Gov. Cecil Andrus?


Members of this informal coalition enjoyed clinking glasses to their momentary success. "We toasted in hopes that we had driven the pointy end of the spear through this proposal," said Bob Stevens, a Ketchum bighorn sheep hunter and former military pilot, who flew many opinion-makers over the remote canyon. "The problem has always been location, location, location."


A look back at this long-debated project suggests that Andrus may indeed have doomed it by choosing the most environmentally sensitive area in Owyhee County, trying to pull an end-run on Congress and pledging Idaho's support without asking the people first.


It was in 1991 that Gov. Cecil Andrus proposed the 25,000-acre Idaho Training Range in an attempt to save Mountain Home Air Force Base from falling onto the list of bases facing closure.


Almost immediately critics said he had picked the worst possible location for a split range: one on the north side of the Owyhee River canyon, one on the south. With the existing 100,000-acre Saylor Creek range, Air Force jets would have had more than 3 million acres in which to train.


Shoshone-Paiute Indians protested, saying it would jeopardize sacred sites. Environmentalists opposed noisy flights over steep-walled canyons; they said the nation's largest herd of California bighorn sheep, antelope fawning areas and sage grouse were threatened by jets flying 100 feet above the ground, dropping flares and bundles of shredded aluminum.


As the Air Force held public hearings on the project, it became clear that a majority of Idahoans polled opposed the range, sometimes by a margin of 10 to 1. Only the residents of Mountain Home, a community whose economy is almost completely dependent on the base, supported the range.


Although Andrus seemed angry and surprised at the Air Force's decision, the facts show he shouldn't have been:


* The Air Force and Andrus refused to consider other sites for the range, and federal law requires alternatives to be considered. If the Air Force had not withdrawn its current proposal, opponents might have sued and won;


* It was inevitable that Congress would try to block the Air Force and Andrus from creating a state-owned range. The Engle Act requires congressional approval before more than 5,000 acres of federal lands are withdrawn from the public domain for military use.


Most important of all, say some opponents, the Owyhee Canyonlands Coalition worked overtime to nationalize the issue. Coalition members made multiple trips to Washington, D.C., to show members of Congress a video of the gorgeous canyons and wildlife values at stake. Volunteer pilots such as Stevens flew people over the canyonlands to bring the issue to life.


The Center for Defense Information produced a 30-minute TV program on the range proposal, quoting Air Force officials saying the range was not critical to the future of Mountain Home AFB.


CNN-TV's "Network Earth" did two reports on the proposal, including a recent program that featured former Bureau of Land Management Director Jim Baca. Baca blamed Andrus for creating pressure to remove him from the Interior Department after Baca visited Idaho and expressed misgivings about the site.


Baca said Andrus was "out of control" in pursuing the project. "He's wielded his power improperly. He has hurt me personally, he's hurt a lot of other people in the Interior Department, and he's done something that's wrong. He ought to back off. He really ought to."


To which Andrus replied, "The Clinton White House is on the verge of being taken over by the Green Machine." Afterwards, Andrus fired off a letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and complained of being treated "shabbily" by Baca.


It was Andrus' involvement in Baca's ouster that helped nationalize the issue, says Craig Gehrke, regional director of The Wilderness Society. "Once we mentioned Baca, Andrus and the bombing range in the Owyhees, congressional folks knew exactly what we were talking about."


Opponents also spotlighted the issue by paying for national television ads narrated by Sun Valley part-time residents and celebrities Mariel Hemingway and Scott Glenn. They took out a full-page ad in The New York Times headlined: U.S. BOMBERS STRIKE IDAHO. Your Last Chance to Keep "The Quietest Place in America" From Becoming a War Zone.


In September, 30 members of Congress - 28 Democrats and two Republicans - wrote the chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Committee expressing their concerns. Twenty-three members of Congress sent a letter to President Clinton, asking him to put the project on hold.


Finally, Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall made the difficult decision to start over. A day later, a federal court judge in Boise ruled that an Air Force environmental impact statement completed in 1992 was flawed. The judge ruled that Andrus and the Air Force were trying to separate two actions that were inextricably linked: bringing a composite wing to the base and developing a new range. The judge ordered the Air Force to write a new environmental impact statement. The ruling pushed the Air Force back to square one.


What's perplexing is why Andrus selected the site in the first place. He has always responded by saying there's nothing mysterious about it. He wanted to keep Mountain Home Air Force Base alive; a new range was the best way to do that.


All of this seemed an odd way for Andrus to act near the end of his fourth term in office. The senior governor in the United States, he was admired for his feistiness on other environmental issues, yet on this one spouting a line of jobs above all.


For once, it didn't work. Even so, it becomes part of the Andrus legacy.


For those who fought the bomb-training range since 1988, the hard-earned victory is sweet. As retired pilot Herb Meyr of Mountain Home puts it: "It's unbelievable what you have to go through to do the right thing. I could see why most people would give up."


The Idaho Conservation League's Brian Goller said people didn't give up "because of the magic of the Owyhees." Although the Air Force tried to paint the place as just rocks and sagebrush suitable for bombing practice, Goller said people who saw videos of it or visited were moved: They wanted to save it. n





Steve Stuebner writes frequently for High Country News from Boise, Idaho.