Saturday, April 12, 2008

Owyhee Canyonlands protections back before Congress
With Democrats in control, Crapo's bill could pass

Sen. Mike Crapo on Thursday introduced a new version of his bill to protect wilderness, wild rivers and ranchers in the Owyhee Canyonlands.

The bill includes new ways to compensate ranchers and removes provisions Senate Democrats had said would prevent them from supporting it. A hearing is scheduled for April 22.

"Without this hearing, we would not be able to move the Owyhee Initiative legislation this year," said Crapo, R-Idaho.

The original bill was first shaped by a panel of environmentalists, ranchers, outfitters, local officials, motorcyclists and snowmobilers brought together by Owyhee County commissioners. Crapo has been working with the county on the bill since 2002.

Republicans, who controlled Congress in 2006 when Crapo introduced the bill, held a hearing on it, but it went nowhere. The new bill was rewritten this year with help from Democrats - now in the majority - on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"Finally, we have a bill I think that has real possibility of succeeding," said Fred Grant, the Owyhee County adviser who has championed the collaborative talks that led to the bill.

Grant, a longtime champion of ranchers' rights, acknowledged he had to make painful compromises to get Democrats on board. But he still thinks the bill is good for ranchers and Owyhee County. "I'm satisfied (that) the way this bill is now can make the Owyhee Initiative agreement work," he said.

The Owyhee Public Land Management Act of 2008 would still protect 517,000 acres of prime sagebrush habitat as wilderness, where motorized use is not allowed. It also would designate 315 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers that run through the desolate area's deep, verdant canyons, which are carved into spires, benches and colorful chasms.

The bill would release more than 200,000 acres of wilderness study areas back to multiple-use management.

In addition, several thousand acres of public lands managed by the BLM would be traded for ranch lands adjacent to wilderness areas. The federal government would buy other lands outright.

Concerns about those proposed land transfers and acquisitions were, in part, what derailed the bill in 2006.

Katie Fite of Western Watersheds Project, who considers grazing on public lands destructive, said the land trades and sale were the worst part of a bad bill. "That is a terrible thing for the public and public lands, sage grouse, pygmy rabbits and everything," Fite said.

Like the 2006 version, the latest bill offers compensation for ranchers who would give up their rights to graze on the protected lands.


Crapo said a visit to Owyhee County last summer by the staffers for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee was critical to finding a way to make the bill work.

To win approval from the committee's Democrats, several provisions were changed to ensure they meet the requirements of the Federal Land Management and Policy Act of 1976. These provisions would:

Set up a science review center to examine grazing decisions. The scientific review will be done as a part of existing coordination with Owyhee County, instead of having a separate policy for evaluating grazing decisions made by the Bureau of Land Management.

Call for a trails and transportation plan for motorized users.

Approve the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's plan to protect its cultural resources.

Overall the bill would cost taxpayers up to $12 million, mostly for buying ranch lands. Seven million dollars of fences, grazing rights, water rights and other parts of ranch estates would be paid for privately by environmental groups or foundations.

Crapo said he was confident he could get Congress to approve the funding. He said he has received a commitment from Republican Sen. Larry Craig to help get the money and move the bill through the Senate. Craig's support is important because the Senate won't move a wilderness bill forward without the support of both of the state's senators.

Craig has had a policy not to talk to the Idaho Statesman since his arrest in a Minneapolis airport became public in August. Will Hart, his press secretary, said Thursday the policy has not changed.

Craig Gehrke, Idaho representative of the Wilderness Society, a national environmental group that helped write the bill, said it is easier to support now.

"Our hard choices were made some time ago," Gehrke said.

Sandra Mitchell, executive director of the Idaho Snowmobile Association, who represented motorized users in the talks but later opposed the bill, said she had not seen the latest version.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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