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for people who care about the West

A lesson in consensus from contentious Idaho


I can’t get too worked up about the national election’s impact on Western land issues.

I don’t live in a state where oil and gas development is roaring through publicly owned lands the way it’s doing in Wyoming and Colorado. Democrats still have enough votes in Idaho’s Senate to stop legislation that fundamentally changes the way we protect our birthright.

Most of all, I see Westerners beginning to develop a new consensus on how they value the landscape we all share. The place that shapes my perspective is Owyhee County, Idaho.

This 4.9 million acres of rolling sagebrush, sharp and deep canyonlands and juniper-covered mountains is one of the most remote places in the Lower 48 states. Here, ranchers ran their cattle like it was open range well into the 1960s.

I first came to Owyhee County in 1996 to cover a hearing in its tiny courthouse. The Bureau of Land Management had proposed reducing grazing on a large chunk of the nearly 80 percent of the county owned by the federal government.

People were fighting mad. Angry ranchers and their families spilled out of the little courtroom to the edge of the desolate highway in front. The county commission was focusing opposition through its land-use committee, formed to assert what it considered was its right to be a direct party to BLM decisions. Its leader was consultant Fred Kelly Grant, a former Maryland prosecutor and defense attorney, who came home to Idaho to fight for private property rights.

Grant was arguing that ranchers had rights on federal lands, not just permits. He expected the federal government to recognize those rights and the value ranchers had developed on those lands through long hours, sweat and financial risks.

Banks and estate judges recognized those values, and Grant and others like him expected the federal government to as well. If not, Grant insisted, money was owed the ranchers.

During the Clinton years, men and women who shared Grant’s views fought the federal government all across the West. They were labeled the Wise Use movement, and most observers saw them as either a tool of the dying resource industries or a mirror image of the region’s environmental movement.

There is no doubt that these rural residents and many in the environmental movement had very different values and approaches to the land and government. And on either side of the great ideological divide, most people dismissed the idea that both sides could care equally about the wild land and wildlife legacy they shared.

In 2000, environmentalists pressed the Clinton administration to turn more than 2 million acres of Owyhee County into a national monument: Clinton almost did. That’s when Fred Grant came to a pivotal conclusion: Owyhee County’s awesome beauty would eventually get federal protection. It could be on Owyhee County’s terms or somebody else’s.

Three years ago, he recommended that the county seek federal legislation to address wilderness and grazing issues before a future president did so unilaterally. He told commissioners they would have to work with environmentalists to succeed.

In October, in that same courtroom, Owyhee County Commission Chairman Hal Tolmie and Shoshone-Paiute Tribal Chairman Terry Gibson handed Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo a proposal for protecting 517,194 acres of wilderness and 384 miles of rivers protected as "wild and scenic." Every public-lands rancher in the county had individually signed off on wilderness creation in his area.

Conservationists and ranchers hugged. Then, they and motorized recreationists gave Grant a standing ovation for his remarkable mediation of a deal that gives ranchers additional peer review of BLM actions and a locally driven program for landscape management.

Sen. Crapo still needs to get it approved by Congress, a daunting task with ideologues on both sides of the debate skeptical and hostile. But this collaborative wilderness settlement reveals how much the debate has shifted since the 1980s.

Ranchers who bitterly fought environmentalists over a long line of issues for decades are walking the halls of Congress to lobby for the largest wilderness bill in a generation. How did this happen?

All conservationists had to give up was the idea that the ranchers have to go. Inez Jaca, a rancher who sat on the panel with environmentalists and others to negotiate the deal, said the key for both sides was finding common ground.

"So many of the folks we always thought were in opposition to what we believe were not," Jaca said. "What we learned is we all wanted to preserve the land."

I expect there will be enough fights in the next four years to keep an environmental reporter like me busy. But there also may be some celebrations. This time in Idaho, Westerners may get to celebrate together.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a long-time reporter for the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho, and the author of several books on Western environmental issues.

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].