Owyhee: On the eve of destruction

  • A hiker stands above Owyhee Canyon, Idaho

    Glenn Oakley

The next time you're looking at a map of the United States, locate what appears to be the largest area without roads in the lower 48. Surprisingly, few people have ever seen or heard of it.

Centered around the point common to Idaho, Nevada and Oregon, it is known as the "Owyhee" high desert region: roughly 6 million acres of undulating steppes, plateaus, canyons, pinnacles and arches anchored by the 7,000-foot Silver City Range to the north. You'll find no interstates cutting through its heart, no national parks with hordes of urbanites trudging dutifully along well-marked trails, no T-shirts with stylish logos selling the Owyhee like a consumer good. What you'll find is an untrammeled vestige of the great American West.

In a word, the Owyhee is singular. It is dominated by rhyolite and basalt spewed by ancient chains of volcanoes. Red rock canyons rivaling those of Utah and Arizona cut through its sloping plateaus creating America's most remote whitewater river systems, several of which are candidates for Wild and Scenic designation. Cougar, antelope, deer, bobcat, an abundance of birds, including the endangered peregrine falcon, and one of this country's largest concentrations of California desert bighorn sheep live in the Owyhee. As evidenced by its many wilderness study areas, this is the crown jewel of America's high desert. The canyon possesses an eerie sense of remoteness and silence. You are often days away from the nearest phone.

The Owyhee's greatest gift is its obscurity and remoteness - but that could cause its demise. The Air Force is planning to install a system of combat and bombing ranges affecting nearly 3 million acres in Idaho alone. It will involve the construction of access and firefighting roads, electronic emitter sites, barracks for personnel and a full-scale complex of buildings with a runway to serve as bombing targets (HCN, 1/24/94).

Sonic booms will be frequent and fighter jets will scream through the river canyons as low as 100 feet above the ground, engaged in laser-guided bombing runs and dog-fighting.

Huge chunks of public land will be closed off to the public for most of the year. Jets will drop aluminum chaff and flares, causing wildfires, and drop tens of thousands of 2,000-pound training bombs on a National Register Archaeological Site containing hundreds of ancient petroglyphs and the remains of 5,000-year-old human settlements. This area lies adjacent to the Duck Valley Reservation and important Native American sacred grounds and is also critical breeding habitat for bighorn sheep and antelope.

As I read government documents that mean the possible destruction of the Owyhee, I think about a land I've known since childhood. I have skied its plateaus, run its whitewater canyons, wilted under its summer heat, dodged rattlesnakes and been lost within its folds a hundred times.

I have seen heart-stopping displays of bighorn sheep mating on narrow ledges hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. I have been surrounded by inquisitive pronghorns, their tawny coats profiled against the black basalt. Sitting by a sagebrush fire watching impossible sunsets bathe this surreal landscape in hues of yellow, gold and orange, sliced by the purple shadows of buttes and mesas, I have felt that I was the only human being on Earth.

The Owyhee has never been an easy land. With searing heat, Arctic cold, rattlesnakes and the distinct possibility of getting truly lost, the Owyhee does not give of itself easily. But when it reveals itself in a sudden waterfall or cougar tracks circling your camp, or a 1,000-foot chasm appearing out of nowhere, you realize that its beauty is unsurpassed. To come to accept the Owyhee on its own terms is to learn something infinitely valuable about yourself.

The silent beauty of the Owyhee will soon be shattered by the blast of sonic booms if the military is not stopped. Not only has the Air Force failed to demonstrate a need for the bombing range, it has also inexplicably failed even to consider other, less sensitive areas including already existing ranges such as the Utah Training Range, 20 minutes flying time from the Mountain Home Air Base.

Crucial to the installation of the bombing range is a land swap between the state of Idaho and the Bureau of Land Management. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has made it clear that he alone will make the final decision whether to approve the land transfer. Those opposing the Idaho range fear that with so many other high-profile environmental issues on Babbitt's plate, the Owyhee could become the sacrificial lamb of political expediency. The only hope the Owyhee has now is sufficient public outcry. People who care must make themselves heard.

Secretary Bruce Babbitt can be reached at Department of Interior, 1849 C St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20240.

Brad Purdy is an attorney who works in Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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