Many have invested years in these battles. For them, it is hard to leave the safety of the ramparts for the negotiating table.
Nowhere is this more evident than among the sculpted canyons and highlands of Owyhee County in Idaho’s southwest corner. This remote desert treasure came close to federal protection as President Clinton created one Western monument after another as his second term ended. Owyhee County escaped the federal nod, but at the same time, many residents saw the writing on the wall: The more than 2 million acres of federal land were one day going to be restricted.
Residents could keep fighting to put that day off, or they could protect the area on their own terms. The only way to get the best arrangement, many believed, was to sit down with environmentalists and negotiate a compromise. The Oywhee County commissioners pushed for that, bringing together representatives of the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, with local cattlemen, outfitters, motorized users and others under the auspices of the Owyhee Initiative.
Remarkably, they made progress, building a legislative proposal that would keep ranchers on the land yet also protect the land as wilderness. What’s more, local people could continue to stay involved in the decisions that shape their lives. They thought that would be true, given the Republican dominance in Washington.
"I think it’s incredibly possible that I could be walking into Congress with guys with big belt buckles and big hats," said John McCarthy, who works for the Idaho Conservation League. Ted Hoffman, president of the Idaho Cattle Association, a veterinarian who represents ranchers in the initiative, agreed. "If you would have told me a year ago I would be working with people like John McCarthy, I would have said you were crazy. What’s crazy is, I kind of like him."
But talks stalled after some of the stockmen’s allies organized meetings to convince ranchers that they could beat the environmentalists. Like Wovoka, the Indian mystic who told tribes they could rid the West of the U.S. Army simply by ghost dancing, these extremists are luring their friends down a disastrous path.
So, too, are some members of the Bush administration, such as Interior Solicitor William Myers. He suggests to ranchers that they can rewrite grazing rules to reverse reform. I spent much of 2002 traveling around the Owyhee canyons and range, talking to people on all sides of the issue. All said their goal was to keep the place the way it was and to restore a healthy ecosystem. Restoration is badly needed.
In the Owyhees as in many parts of the West, poorly managed grazing and historic overgrazing have left hundreds of miles of desert streams in poor condition, suffering from poor water quality and high temperatures that threaten rare redband trout and other aquatic life. Ranchers say they are reversing the trends and beginning to improve range and wetland conditions. But cattle prices remain low, and there’s little incentive to spend money to bring the land back to health.
The complaints of Tim Lowry, a rancher who lives on the Oregon border, were typical. He said he and his neighbors have been forced to take their cattle off the range early by environmentalists’ lawsuits. Now, he has to scramble to find more expensive private ground to keep his herds during the late summer. He’s not sure how long he can hang on.
Lowry wants a better system of fences and reservoirs so his cattle don’t camp in the creeks and are easier to manage. But because the range is in a wilderness study area, such development is banned. He said if groups like the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club agreed to a fair scientific review and his minor developments -- which could be allowed under the Wilderness Act -- he’d be ready to make the range a permanent wilderness area.
"I can live with the wilderness if we deal with the management question," Lowry said.
These are the kind deals that could protect an area most agree is of national significance. Conservationist McCarthy agrees. "The bigger the wilderness, the easier it will be for us to convince our constituency to support fences and water projects, " he said.
The wild card is the motorized recreation community. Sandra Mitchell, executive director of the Idaho Snowmobile Association, says she doesn’t believe the Owyhees will ever be protected by the kind of strict wilderness terms environmentalists prefer.
"It may be true but you can’t write history until it happens," she said. "I don’t believe in inevitability."
Without a wilderness designation, participants such as the Sierra Club will almost certainly back out. The outcome of the Owyhee collaboration will gauge whether those with the courage to compromise can find a new path for resolving the West’s public lands controversies. Otherwise the extremists will continue to use places like Owyhee County as their battleground, and the people and the land will be the losers.