Friday, March 27, 2009

Unlikely partners savor victory, but work's not done to protect Owyhee Canyonlands

Environmental groups and Owyhee County ranchers went from bitter enemies to friends and partners in their ambitious effort to preserve the awesome scenery of the Owyhee Canyonlands; miles of habitat for wild sheep, imperiled sage grouse and rare redband trout; and the cultural treasures of both cowboys and Indians.

But they're also looking ahead to the work to complete a hard-fought compromise that was included as one small measure in a sweeping public lands bill sent to President Obama on Wednesday. The bill could become law as soon as Monday.

The ranchers overcame their traditional opposition to wilderness and wild rivers restrictions to help conservative Republican Sen. Mike Crapo pass Idaho's first wilderness bill since 1980.

Now the burden shifts to environmentalists, who have to follow through on promises to find the money needed to keep ranchers whole as the region transforms.

They agreed to help raise at least $10 million in private money and convince a Democratic administration to back $15 million more in tax dollars to help pay for the land transfers, grazing buyouts and other accommodations for ranchers who now live and work in the area.

"That's where the hard work is going to come," said Brenda Richards, an Owyhee County rancher who was part of the collaborative collective that crafted the agreement.

"We had the same caliber of people who wrote the Constitution," said Fred Grant, the private property rights activist who prodded the county to start the process and then headed the group.

Environmental groups were just as proud Wednesday. For them, the battle started when the Air Force sought to build a bombing range over wildlands including Dickshooter's Ridge, Battle Creek and the forks of the Owyhee River.

"Sierra Club has worked for nearly 30 years to protect this spectacular desert landscape," said Jessica Ruehrwein, Sierra Club regional representative in Boise. "It is truly a historic day."

The groups restated their commitments made to local residents.

"The ranchers should be looking for us to make sure we get all these pieces together," said Craig Gehrke, the Idaho representative for the Wilderness Society who sat on the panel. "The solicitation of the private money and the federal appropriations are going to be a tough task, but we're going to do it."

The Shoshone-Paiute Tribes will get some of the federal money to protect cultural treasures spread out across an area that is Idaho's cross between Utah's canyonlands and Kenya's Serengeti Plain.

About $8 million is authorized for buying private lands in and around wilderness areas. But the $10 million from private sources, including foundations, would buy easements and water rights and pay ranchers to retire grazing permits.

Crapo said the "hard-fought, long-negotiated" settlement "will be an enduring testament to the power and potential of collaboration." He said he would make sure the promises are kept and that federal agencies follow through.

Democrats in the Senate required that Crapo take out the intricate deals needed to get each affected rancher in the county on board. And those changes made even Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, all but drop his objections to the bill.

"The Owyhee Initiative actually is beneficial for our point of view as currently written," said Marvel, whose group helped spur the collaboration with anti-grazing lawsuits.

The listing of sage grouse as an endangered species, which Marvel expects another lawsuit to force, will overwhelm the benefits to ranchers in the bill, said Marvel, who was excluded from the initiative and says eliminating public lands grazing is one of his goals.

But Grant said a University of Idaho scientific review center established by the bill - and an independent grazing review process - will help ranchers find ways to protect sage grouse and continue grazing. The Wilderness Society's Gehrke agreed.

"The goal ... has always been to take a big-picture view of the sagebrush steppe issues," Gehrke said. "I'm not sure anyone has done that in Owyhee County."

Jordan Valley rancher Mike Hanley, who long supported the bill, said ranchers weren't looking for guarantees or even a hand up.

"All we ask is that we get a fair shot and it goes through a scientific process," Hanley said.

The omnibus lands bill that included 170 other public land bills passed 285-140 with the support of Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson and Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick. Minnick told the House he floated a remote upper stretch of the river last year.

He praised Crapo for his efforts "to preserve our cherished Owyhees."

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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