Sometimes it takes more courage to compromise than to take a stand. That has become true for many of the ranchers, environmentalists and local officials fighting over the last wild places left in the West. The people whose lives are most tied to the scenic landscapes of the region have been asked to take sides between protecting land and wildlife or lifestyles and jobs.
Many have invested years in these battles. For
them, it is hard to leave the safety of the ramparts for the
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
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.
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, "
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
"It may be true but you
can’t write history until it happens," she said. "I
don’t believe in inevitability."
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