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Battle over the Owyhee:
Should We Compromise for Wilderness?
By Kerry Brophy
In this 9 million-acre stretch of sagebrush, canyons and mountains, groups that haven’t always seen eye-to-eye are using a surprising word in the heated debate over public land use: compromise.
© Jon MCLaughlin

Since the 1964 Wilderness Act was signed into law, the debate over America’s last remaining wild places hasn’t simmered down. In fact, it’s boiled over as more people want more things from the pieces of public land that remain.

The rocky desert surrounding Idaho’s Owyhee River, where some NOLS students learn paddling skills, is front-and-center in today’s tough battles over land use in the West. But in this 9 million-acre stretch of sagebrush, canyons and mountains, groups that haven’t always seen eye-to-eye are using a surprising word in the heated debate over public land use: compromise. Ranchers, conservation groups, county officials and recreationists are discovering that if they don’t work together in the Owyhee, they might lose everything.

For the past 30 years, the fiercest battle in the Owyhee has centered around cattle grazing. Environmentalists have stood on one side of the fence, fighting to protect public rangelands from overgrazing, while ranchers have taken a stand on the other side of the issue, struggling to keep the land that’s been their livelihood for generations. Meanwhile, neither group has gotten what they want. Environmental groups have been unable to successfully designate part of the Owyhee as official wilderness, and ranchers have waited in limbo to secure their grazing leases. The result was multiple-use madness.

But two years ago, all of these parties sat down together and formed a joint group called the Owyhee Initiative. What they’ve done has angered hard-liners on either side of the debate, but it has provided an example of one way to settle today’s complicated land use disputes. In April, the group announced its proposal for the Owyhee region, which they claim will protect wilderness, economic viability and a rural way of life. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has offered to carry this citizen proposal to Congress.

The plan calls for a 510,000-acre wilderness proposal and 392 miles of river protections. A proposed conservation and research center will undertake new projects on wildlife habitat protection, invasive species and water quality throughout the region. On the other hand, the proposal also recommends the designation of certain areas where motorized travel is allowed, and the conversion of some wilderness study areas into non-wilderness to allow for multiple uses like grazing.

What the Owyhee Initiative has attempted is a tall order, especially for people who feel passionate about maintaining the integrity of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Many are asking, “Is wilderness too valuable to compromise for?” What complicates matters more is that today the U.S. is a very different place than it was in 1964 — there’s less public land available, but more people with more ideas on how to manage it. This dilemma is especially true with areas like the Owyhee that aren’t hard-to-access mountain environments, but rather low-elevation lands in high demand for all kinds of purposes.

Another obstacle facing today’s would-be wilderness areas is in Washington, D.C., where the Interior Department has eliminated protection for many proposed wilderness areas in Utah and other Western states. Previously, areas that have “wilderness qualities” have been granted some temporary protection until their status can be determined. But that policy has been kicked out, and that means areas like the Owyhee that are on hold for wilderness designation are vulnerable.

It’s no surprise that the fate of our public lands is an uneasy dispute to settle. After all, there are 280 million Americans who own wild places such as the Owyhee. What conservation organizations are essentially trying to do is save what’s left, which is a very different mission than what the signers of the Wilderness Act had in mind. As more of these battles are waged across the country, we must ask ourselves if it takes more courage to take a stand, or to compromise.

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