Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Property rights guru fathered unlikely wilderness bill

Supporters of Sen. Mike Crapo's Owyhee Initiative Bill are going to have to wait at least another few months before the brainchild of Fred Grant finally comes to fruition.

Grant, an adviser to Owyhee County, had worked alongside the late Rep. Helen Chenoweth fighting federal control over public land ranchers. He worked with her husband, the late Wayne Hage, in pushing federal courts to recognize private property rights on public lands like water, fences and other improvements.

Owyhee County dodged a bullet in 2001 when President Clinton decided not to turn more than a million acres of the county's breathtaking canyonlands and valuable sagebrush steppe habitat into a national monument. but Grant knew the issue wouldn't go away.

The Western Watersheds Project headed by Jon Marvel was successfully forcing ranchers to cut back their grazing to protect endangered species and water quality in court. Even with Republicans in control of the White House and nearly in control of Congress, Grant was doubtful they could protect Owyhee County's ranchers and keep them in business.

So he persuaded Owyhee County commissioners to convene talks between willing environmental groups, cattlemen, local officials, outfitters, motorized recreationists, the Air Force and eventually the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe. He took his idea to the Idaho Congressional delegation. Only Sen. Mike Crapo answered.

Grant's plan, to bring a group together toward a land plan for the Owyhees, was exactly what Crapo wanted. To Crapo, collaborative decision-making for federal land issues is a core value.

The initiative group itself reached a basic agreement back in 2004 as Grant and environmentalists went from ranch to ranch to work out individual deals that allowed them to increase the wilderness acres and miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers that could be protected. Ranchers realized quickly that wilderness protection gave them some of what they wanted in the desolate, expansive rangelands of Owyhee County - to be left alone.

But Crapo and his staff spent countless hours trying to get the language right, so that a Republican-dominated Congress and private property and ranching lobbyists wouldn't kill the bill when it got to Washington, D.C. Sen. Larry Craig stalled the bill and it didn't pass in 2006.

Then the Democrats took over Congress. The very language Crapo had painstakingly negotiated with the Initiative partners had to be rewritten to satisfy the Democratic Energy and Natural Resources Committee leaders and staff.

Once again, Grant went back to the ranchers and, working with the committee staff, hammered out a deal they all could support.

The bill will result in a net gain of 29,000 acres of private property to the Owyhee County tax base. It also provides for range expert review of BLM decisions and release of over 300,000 acres to full multiple use.

Environmental backers get 500,000 acres as wilderness, and designation of 315 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers. The bill also would authorize a cultural site protection plan prepared by the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes to pay for tribal rangers to patrol and protect one of the largest unprotected acreages of cultural and religious sites in the lower 48 states.

But environmentalists had their critics, too, especially about the public land transfers.

The sweeping lands bill that included the Owyhees' bill was delayed until January but is expected to move quickly. When this is done, Crapo will rightfully get credit for carrying the bill to the finish line. But its father will always be Fred Grant, who turned his defense of private rights into a quest for public responsibility for a place people from both sides of a heated debate love equally if not differently.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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