Riding the middle path

In Idaho’s remote Owyhee region, an effort to protect wilderness and keep ranchers in business threatens to crack under pressure, or slip into oblivion

  • Cattle drive in Owyhee County, Idaho

  • Chris Black and daughter, Bridget, drive cattle from fall to winter pastures near Bruneau, Idaho, where the Black family has been ranching since the 1870s

  • The Upper Owyhee River, just upstream from the confluence with the South Fork Owyhee

  • Studying maps of the Owyhee region, from left, Craig Gehrke of The Wilderness Society, Chad Gibson of the Owyhee Cattlemen's Association, Ted Payne, a rancher who runs cattle on Owyhee public allotments and John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League

  • Owyhee and Custer county map

    Diane Sylvain
  • Off-roaders want more Owyhee County land opened for multiple uses


BRUNEAU, IDAHO — Rancher Chris Black pulls his pickup off the Shoofly Cutoff Road, concerned that a stranger may need help. There’s a young man in a baseball cap, standing by a truck, who explains that he has just shot a rattlesnake. He wants the rattles for a trophy, but is too squeamish to finish the job. In neighborly fashion, Black climbs from his truck and, with a swift jab of his shovel, chops the rattles from the lifeless snake. He picks up the severed tail and tosses it at the young man’s feet.

"Scared of snakes," muses Black, as he rattles on down the road, baby-blue rosary beads jiggling from the rearview mirror.

Around him spreads the rugged Owyhee, 9 million acres of sagebrush steppe, canyons, plateaus and mountains, covering southwest Idaho and spilling into Oregon and Nevada. Only a few thousand people live in the whole region, but it’s home to one of the nation’s largest populations of California bighorn sheep and the world’s largest population of nesting raptors, as well as pronghorn, mule deer, sage grouse, redband trout and a host of rare and endangered plants found nowhere else in the world.

Black drives an hour on the washboard road to a sage-and-juniper plateau where he has a cabin, a hired hand, and cattle he needs to move. On this blistering-hot day in August, Black and his ranch hand move several hundred head through a gate and begin separating the yearlings from the adult cows. It’s gritty work, and anything but simple. As yearlings bolt into the wrong pasture, Black wheels his horse around and, with the help of two dusty-tongued white-and-black dogs, drives them back to the herd.

Beyond the fences lies some of the land that Black leases for grazing from the federal Bureau of Land Management — 87,000 acres of unfenced sage, bunchgrass and canyons of lichen-splattered rhyolite rolling to the south. It’s such rough country that it takes less time to trot a horse the 20 miles to the far end than it does to drive the rock-strewn and rutted roads.

Black’s family has been ranching in the Owyhee since the 1870s, and for all useful purposes, he’s king of this country. But he’s recently offered to give up 20,000 acres of the backcountry kingdom he leases, in return for what will likely be a tidy sum from the federal government — and also for the sake of bringing some peace to this fiercely contested landscape.

For the last 30 years, this has been the site of some of the West’s toughest battles over cattle grazing, as environmentalists have fought to protect public rangelands, while ranchers have struggled to retain control over land that has been in their care for generations. Land managers, meanwhile, have swung back and forth with changing political winds. But for more than two years, a group of ranchers, environmentalists, local officials, off-road vehicle riders and others — who call their group the Owyhee Initiative — has worked to reach consensus on a new way to manage these BLM lands.

In the give-and-take, Idaho’s environmentalists could win a sizable wilderness designation — possibly 500,000 acres — the kind of victory they haven’t tasted in nearly a quarter-century. In return, locals would get more control over these federal lands.

Black believes the Owyhee Initiative could bring needed stability to ranchers and the community. "It could temper the political see-saw," he says.

It’s a remarkable situation: Idaho is one of the West’s most politically conservative states, and battles have raged here for decades over just about every environmental issue. Yet the state is poised to pull off not just one, but two major consensus deals — the Owyhee Initiative and another to the north, in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains (see story page 9).

Consensus never comes easy, though, and both deals are under attack from the right and the left — and also creating friction within the environmental and ranching circles. Will the Owyhee Initiative write a new chapter on what it takes to find the middle ground and win wilderness in the Bush era? Or, like so many other collaborative efforts, is it doomed to lose momentum and stagger into oblivion?

Forced to the table

In the Owyhee, ranchers and environmentalists haven’t sat down at the bargaining table out of the goodness of their hearts. Metaphorically speaking, more guns have been pointed at more heads around here than you’ll find in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

The conflict has centered on 4.9 million-acre Owyhee County, whose 11,000 residents are outnumbered by cattle nearly four-to-one. Uncompromising environmentalists in the Committee for the High Desert and the Western Watersheds Project believe the arid land can’t support cattle at all, and they have evidence. The BLM, which manages nearly 70 percent of the land in the county, admitted that throughout the 1980s and 1990s, almost all the rangeland was in poor or only fair condition, and almost all the riparian areas along streams and rivers — crucial for wildlife — were in unsatisfactory condition, with eroded banks, battered vegetation and reduced and warmed water flows.

The BLM had been lax in its management, and clumsy with its rare crackdowns on overgrazing. So environmentalists took to the courts: In one case in 1997, they sued the BLM arguing that 68 grazing permits stretching across 1 million acres had been issued without adequate environmental analysis. They won a ruling, finalized in 2002, that forced the BLM to begin cutting back grazing by 30 percent or more. In the melee, the BLM’s state directory, Martha Hahn, quit, reportedly in response to pressure from the Bush administration, Idaho’s congressmen and ranchers.

But environmentalists drew their biggest gun during Bill Clinton’s final year in the White House, when groups, including the Committee for the High Desert, put together a proposal for a 2.7 million-acre Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands National Monument. It would have prevented any new development and limited motorized recreation. The groups pushed hard in the final days of 2000, filling Boise mailboxes with color brochures and buying full-page ads in East Coast newspapers, trying to generate public support. Although Clinton declared a series of new monuments, the Owyhee stalled on his desk, probably because environmentalists never got the locals on board.

"At the time, I didn’t think (a monument) was a possibility," says Black, "but since then I’ve realized that we came really close to getting a monument out here."

Early on, local officials had countered the environmentalists by trying to assert county supremacy, in the style of other Sagebrush Rebellion hotspots, such as New Mexico’s Catron County and Nevada’s Nye County. But many locals saw this as a losing battle, when the courts seemed to side with the environmentalists.

"The ranchers and the county were spending an enormous amount of money on lawyer and court fees," says Owyhee County Commissioner Chris Salove, creating a considerable burden in a poor county, where the median household income is only 60 percent of the national average. So the county and the ranchers began exploring other options. "We had to take a proactive stand that suited us," says Salove.

County officials turned to Fred Grant, a well-respected attorney who had worked with the county on natural-resource issues for a decade. Grant, who was born in nearby Nampa and holds a law degree from the University of Chicago, had fought for property rights with Stewards of the Range, a group whose founders include the original sagebrush rebel, Wayne Hage.

Grant started by suggesting that the commissioners send a letter to Idaho’s congressional representatives to see if they could help end the grazing fight. Just a few days after the letter went out, Republican Sen. Mike Crapo called. "He explained the climate in Washington, D.C., and let us know that we weren’t going to get any big breaks from environmental laws," says Grant. But Crapo agreed to support anything that a broad-based consensus group worked out.

"The best way to make decisions about our environment and land is to let the people who live there make those decisions," says Crapo, who isn’t known for commitment to the environment: As a first-term congressman, Crapo has scored a mere 6 percent on the latest League of Conservation Voters scorecard.

Grant soon built a bridge to the middle ground of the environmental movement, with the help of The Nature Conservancy. He sat down with representatives of the Idaho Conservation League and The Wilderness Society over coffee and bagels, and he convinced them to help put together a proposal for Sen. Crapo. Both groups were known in the Owyhee community, since in the 1980s and ’90s both had worked with locals to limit low-altitude flights from nearby Mountain Home Air Force Base.

The Owyhee Initiative’s official meetings began in the fall of 2001. For the first year and a half, the work group gathered monthly. Lately, it has picked up the pace, and subcommittees meet several times a month at various ranch offices and the headquarters of Stewards of the Range and the Idaho Conservation League.

Ten people have voting rights — four representatives of environmental groups, four ranchers, one for outfitters and guides, and one for off-road vehicle drivers. In any given meeting, others, including officials from the Air Force and the BLM, might be present, offering their opinions at times. From the first meeting onward, everyone has agreed to two basic goals, says Grant: They want to maintain a viable ranching economy, and they want to protect some wilderness.

Wilderness, cows and then some

So far, it’s been a tedious, and at times tenuous, two years of negotiations, centering on 22 "wilderness study areas" that cover nearly 700,000 acres. Cows are allowed in these areas, as they are in official wilderness areas. According to the BLM, the lands have "wilderness characteristics," and are managed with tight restrictions until Congress decides whether to give them official wilderness protection.

To keep their cattle out of streams — and lawsuits — the ranchers say they need to build new fences and stock tanks, but BLM regulations in the study areas make that difficult to impossible. Ironically, official wilderness designation might make it easier for the ranchers: While the 1964 Wilderness Act banned mechanized vehicles from wilderness areas, agency regulations have long allowed occasional use of backhoes and pickup trucks to maintain stock ponds and fences — regulations that Congress has affirmed in subsequent wilderness laws.

Nonetheless, says Black, "There’s always been a mistrust of wilderness on the part of ranchers."

Meanwhile, environmentalists feel a desperation of their own. Last April, the Interior Department eliminated protection for many proposed wilderness areas in Utah, a policy that has since been extended to other states (HCN, 4/28/03: Wilderness takes a massive hit). "Our expectation is that (many Owyhee study areas) will lose protection under the current administration," says Craig Gehrke, Idaho’s regional director for The Wilderness Society, and a voting member of the Initiative.

The consensus among Owyhee negotiators is that study-area limbo isn’t good for anyone. Therefore, they’re seeking to have some of the areas designated as wilderness, and the remaining study areas eliminated altogether. The BLM has recommended 390,000 acres for wilderness. At first, the ranchers suggested a smaller, rim-to-rim proposal that included only the canyon bottoms. "That was a nonstarter for us," says the Idaho Conservation League’s John McCarthy, another voting member. "We told them that we’d only accept at least what the BLM has recommended."

It took a reserved, unassuming range management consultant to overcome the ranchers’ suspicions. At the Owyhee table, Chad Gibson represents the powerful Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association, Idaho’s oldest grazing organization. Unlike many of his peers, he understands that the Wilderness Act and other laws prevent land managers from using wilderness as an excuse to kick cows off the land. And with a Ph.D. in range science and 31 years with the University of Idaho’s Cooperative Extension Agency, Gibson, now retired, carries a lot of clout. "He was our ‘in’ with the ranchers," says McCarthy.

In early 2002, Gibson started traveling around the Owyhee, meeting ranchers at rural schoolhouses and libraries, and in their homes, often with McCarthy and Gehrke in tow. "We sit down at kitchen tables," says McCarthy, "roll out the maps, talk about what we’re trying to do, mark up the maps with existing fences and structures, where they think they need new fences and which roads they use."

With Gibson backing the idea, members of the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association voted unanimously in 2002 to support at least a rim-to-rim wilderness proposal, plus anything additional agreed to by the individual ranchers who hold permits in wilderness-study areas. "Cattlemen not involved with (wilderness study areas) are still philosophically opposed to wilderness designation," says Gibson, "but they aren’t opposed to their neighbor working out a deal that keeps him in business."

All the face-to-face talks have led to an unprecedented level of trust among the Owyhee stakeholders. "There’s no brow-beating, no stand-offishness," McCarthy says. "I’m more familiar (with timber-issue meetings) out in the forest, where you meet with people and there’s a lot of positioning, pissing on stumps, sniffing around and people being huffy and angry. (In the Owyhee) it’s not that way at all. These people realize that some kind of change needs to happen."

Hard-liners feel burned

The deal-making in the Owyhee involves much more than deciding which land will be designated wilderness.

The county and ranchers insist on setting up an independent scientific review panel, because they’re suspicious of the BLM’s science. Ranchers are angry because the judge who ruled against the 68 grazing permits, refused to allow them to submit their own scientific data, which, they say, showed that the range was improving. The 10-person science panel would likely be selected from the University of Idaho. For it to fly, says Gehrke, the panel will need to include not just range specialists, but also biologists, plant and fire ecologists and wildlife specialists.

The Initiative would also call for a new 10-person, county-appointed board of directors that would advise the BLM on grazing and road management, and act as a mediator between land users and land managers. The board slots would be filled by those currently at the table. Anyone who disagrees with a BLM decision could take it to the board of directors, where eight out of 10 votes would be needed to engage the panel scientists to review the data used in the decision. The BLM would not have a seat on the board — but neither would it be obligated to follow the board’s advice.

"Initially, we felt a little left out of the process, but that’s not the case anymore, because we’re more directly involved," says BLM spokesman Barry Rose. "If we can help people achieve consensus over something that works for the ranchers and environmentalists and others involved, whether we’re a voting member or not isn’t important."

The Initiative group is also negotiating with individual ranchers to purchase access easements over private land, to acquire scattered private inholdings, and to buy out some of Chris Black’s grazing permits. The sale could lead to 20,000 acres of cow-free wilderness.

But the groups that take a hard line against grazing — and that originally helped force the ranchers to the table — feel burned. They are barred from participating in the negotiations because they’re seen as uncompromising. Yet the cattlemen have their own hard-liner at the table — Grant, who worked for Stewards of the Range.

"(The Initiative’s plan) would be a disaster," says Jon Marvel, head of the Western Watersheds Project, which is leading a national campaign to get cattle off public land. He’s suspicious that the group’s wilderness bill would allow more fences, water lines, and motorized use. "I’d rather deal with (grazing) under current conditions than give up (wilderness study areas) and capitulate to a county review board and science review board."

Katie Fite, former director of the Committee for the High Desert, who now works for Marvel, says she’s been allowed to attend Owyhee Initiative subcommittee meetings, but hasn’t been allowed to speak. Like Marvel, she opposes the idea of giving the locals — and the middle-ground environmentalists — more say over public land. "It interjects this whole elitist layer of established ranching families and large conservation organizations," she says.

It’s a concern resonating around the West. In July, more than 30 environmental groups from New Mexico, Oregon, Montana, Utah, and other states joined High Desert and Western Watersheds in sending a five-page letter of criticism to the leaders of the three main environmental groups that support the Initiative. In September, Fite and two others launched a Web site detailing their concerns.

The Owyhee Initiative’s environmentalists acknowledge that barring the hard-liners could be a mistake, but they show little remorse for the decision. "They’ve been players in the Owyhee for a long time, and no one could expect that the locals would want to sit down and talk with them," says Gehrke. "They’ve made their own bed and now they can lie in it."

Consensus could crumble

For now, at least, the large, national environmental groups are on board this collaborative effort. But it will be hard-pressed to survive without support from Washington, D.C. Unlike its predecessor, however, the Bush administration has shown outright disregard for collaborative solutions.

In 2000, the administration killed a plan by local timber interests and environmentalists to reintroduce grizzly bears to central Idaho and western Montana (HCN, 5/13/96: Bringing back grizzlies splits environmentalists). This year, pressured by the administration to fast-track energy development, the BLM nixed a gas-drilling proposal that emphasized land conservation on Colorado’s Roan Plateau, even though the proposal was backed by local ranchers, hunters, environmentalists, county commissioners and five town councils (HCN, 9/1/03: BLM sinks local input to drill Roan Plateau).

"It’s really negative and discouraging when people work so hard on something and get shot right out of the saddle," says Patrick Heffernan, director of the Red Lodge Clearinghouse, a Montana-based nonprofit that supports consensus efforts around the West. "The general trend (with consensus efforts) is that a lot of them are waiting, in a holding pattern right now, to see whether they’re going to be listened to and heard" by the federal agencies and the Bush administration.

Sen. Crapo says he expects the administration to support the Owyhee Initiative. But that’s part of the problem, some wilderness advocates warn. This deal has so many trade-offs, says Fite, "Why not save wilderness for a different day?"

But the environmentalists in the Owyhee Initiative aren’t willing to pass up the opportunity to get some wilderness locked in. Idaho no longer has a champion like the late Democratic Sen. Frank Church, who backed the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1980 creation of the 2.4 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. "Another Frank Church isn’t on the horizon, and the politics in Idaho aren’t going to change," Gehrke says.

Actually, even the 1980 wilderness bill that created the Frank Church-River of No Return was a compromise: It grandfathered in airplane-landing strips and jet boats along the Salmon River. "For those of us who have been stalled out for a generation trying to get wilderness in Idaho," McCarthy says, "we know there has to be a variation on this cooperative theme."

It’s a delicate truce that is holding together the Owyhee Initiative, and it’s not just hard-line environmentalists who are threatening the balance. Irrigators on the Snake River recently held the Initiative hostage — along with a similar effort under way in the Boulder-White Cloud mountain ranges — in a fight over salmon and dams (see story at right). Off-road vehicle enthusiasts are also putting a lot of pressure on both collaboration efforts, especially the Owyhee.

Few people feel that pressure as strongly as Inez Jaca, who represents the county at the Owyhee Initiative table. Jaca has a ranch south of Nampa that sits just beyond the sparsely vegetated buttes of the Owyhee Front. These buttes have become Boise’s off-road playground, and now are crisscrossed by a maze of ever-widening and rutted roads. "They’re just trashing the place," she says.

The off-roaders have a representative at the table, but they haven’t been easy to please. Most members of the Initiative want those wilderness study areas that are not designated as wilderness to be released to multiple use, so fences, water developments, new roads and motorized recreation could be allowed. So far, all but the motorized-recreation representative have agreed that any legislation would "soft release" that land — meaning it could still be considered for wilderness designation in the future. "We absolutely won’t accept hard-release language" that wouldn’t allow future wilderness protection, says Roger Singer, director of the Sierra Club’s Idaho chapter, and an Initiative voting member.

But so far, the off-road crowd has said it will only accept the BLM’s recommended wilderness acreage, and only if the remaining study areas are "hard released," or permanently removed from wilderness consideration. "The (off-road) community has said all along that our bottom line is that this would be the first and last dance for wilderness within the Owyhees," says Sandra Mitchell, the motorized-users representative.

There have also been some murmurings about distrust and dissatisfaction within the ranching community. And without the ranchers, the Initiative is lost.

A moment of truth

The ranchers’ resolve is put to the test later in August, at the Owyhee Cattleman’s Association’s 125th annual summer meeting in the old mining town of Silver City. Up a twisting dirt road, the town clings to the steep hillsides of Owyhee County’s forested uplands. Straw-hatted and jeans-clad ranchers sit on benches and metal folding chairs in the Masonic Temple.

Chris Black is here in the crowd of 80 or so people, as are Chad Gibson, the wilderness-peddling range management consultant, Chris Salove with Owyhee County, and several representatives of the BLM. Also here are the National Beef Association’s head, himself an Owyhee County rancher, Sen. Crapo, and former Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R. The meeting’s attendance list speaks to the influences in this county.

The cattlemen are slated to vote again on whether to continue supporting the Owyhee Initiative, and rumors are floating around that the debate could get nasty.

As rain sprinkles outside, Fred Grant, the aging attorney who got the Owyhee Initiative started, takes the podium. He is clearly ailing, suffering from a faulty hip and a heart problem. His physical difficulties seem to symbolize the fragility of the Owyhee Initiative. Yet his delivery to the crowd is robust.

Grant tells the ranchers that he’s not surprised at the bitterness that’s evolved over the long and tedious process, and he chides the "deceit and deception" that’s boiled up from the various camps. "My only interest," he says, "has been to protect the Owyhee Cattlemen."

Grant steps down from the podium. When the moderator calls for the vote, asking if anyone in this room opposes the Initiative, there is only dead silence.

Since the August meeting, Grant has been admitted to a Boise hospital, and undergone two heart surgeries. Members of the Owyhee Initiative have stuck it out, however. They say they expect to announce their proposal to the public sometime in December. In January, they hope to take the proposal to Sen. Crapo, who will formalize it into a bill to take before Congress.

Robyn Morrison writes from Paonia, Colorado.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- In Boulder-White Cloud mountains, another wilderness compromise

- Wilderness deals held hostage in salmon struggle


John McCarthy Idaho Conservation League 208-345-6933

Jon Marvel Western Watersheds Project 208-788-2290

Chris Salove Owyhee County Commissioner 208-896-4162

Katie Fite’s Web site www.owyheeinitiative.com.

High Country News Classifieds
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
    Western Watersheds Project seeks a Tenth Circuit Staff Attorney to bring litigation in the interests of protecting and restoring western watersheds and wildlife, particularly focused...
    Position Title: Director of Development Status: Full-Time/Exempt Reports to: Executive Director Location: Remote (California preferred) About the Native American Land Conservancy As one of the...
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....