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Conservationists should support the Owyhee Initiative, the compromise management plan for more than 3 million wild acres of southwestern Idaho (HCN, 12/8/04: Riding the middle path). If the wildly divergent interest groups that developed the initiative can hold together, Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo promises to shepherd the plan through Congress this year.

Idaho’s Owyhee country, bigger than several states, is the largest roadless area in the Lower 48. But its wild character is bit-by-bit eroding away, a process being accelerated by pro-development decisions of Bush administration land managers.

The two-year Owyhee Initiative has produced a remarkable compromise, aligning cattlemen and sagebrush rebels with the Idaho Conservation League, the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy and The Wilderness Society. The conservation community’s negotiators are dedicated, knowledgeable professionals representing virtually all of the mainstream conservation organizations active in Idaho. Neither they, nor their counterparts representing local landowners and the ORV community, sold their principles down the river.

The result is a compromise. Still, from a purely conservationist’s perspective, it looks to be a very good deal — far better, in fact, than what would have emerged had an Owyhee National Monument been created in the final days of the Clinton administration. Crapo’s bill should create 500,000 acres of new statutory wilderness, including 40,000 acres of cattle-free range land, and a mechanism for buying out additional grazing permits on other BLM land in the future. It will designate at least 300 miles of new wild and scenic rivers, encompassing all of the spectacular Owyhee Canyonland river complex. Most importantly, it restricts ORV usage to designated roads and trails, everywhere on public land in all 5 million acres of Owyhee County, a precedent-setting first for our scenic Western state.

While the compromise will release some existing wilderness study areas to multiple-use management, the best and wildest of the Owyhees receives permanent protection. For the first time, professional conservationists will be given a permanent "seat at the table" and a voice equal to local ranchers in a new citizens’ group set up to advise the Bureau of Land Management on future land management and resource-use decisions. Never before in my conservative state have environmental interests been given this kind of formal, officially sanctioned access.

While not every wild acre is protected, nor every existing illegal ORV trail closed, the proposed compromise looks to be balanced, fair and deserving of conservation community support. Let’s unite to ensure it passes through Congress intact.

Walt Minnick
Boise, Idaho
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