What will become of the Sagebrush Sea?

First consider the content of Idaho's Owyhee County: 90 percent public lands—3.8 million acres, 200 miles of paved roads, 9,800 miles of unpaved roads, 11,000 residents, 90,000 cattle, site of an Air Force bombing range, home to the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe and Duck Valley Indian Reservation, one of Idaho's poorest counties adjacent to Idaho's fastest growing county (Canyon), home to numerous mammal, bird and plant species, and, lastly, is one of the largest undeveloped and unprotected wildlands in the lower 48.

Now consider this: Idaho's last wilderness designation was the 2.4 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in 1980. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since Idaho last saw fit to preserve some of its natural beauty.

In 2000, during the final days of the Clinton Administration, conservation groups nearly succeeded in having 2.7 million acres of the Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands designated a national monument.

The Owyhee's close call with becoming a national monument spurred environmentalists, ranchers and recreationists into action. Whether for or against wilderness preservation, these groups realized they must act quickly to safeguard their interests—whether it be protecting the land or keeping it free of rules and regulations. Thus was borne the Owyhee Initiative Working Group—a consortium of ranching, environmental and recreation representatives assigned the task of coming up with an Owyhee wilderness proposal to present to Sen. Mike Crapo, who would then take it to Capitol Hill.

This week, after more than two years of meetings, wrangling and negotiations, the Owyhee Initiative Working Group finally reached a compromise for a wilderness proposal and unveiled it to the public.

The Owyhee Initiative Working Group goal reads:

"To develop and implement a landscape-scale program in Owyhee County that preserves the natural processes that create and maintain a functioning, unfragmented landscape supporting and sustaining a flourishing community of human, plant and animal life, that provides for economic stability by preserving livestock grazing as an economically viable use, and that provides for protection of cultural resources."

The Group proposes to accomplish this goal by:

• Designating 510,000 acres as wilderness—cattle will still be allowed to graze on most of these lands and off-road vehicles are required to stay on existing trails

• Giving 390 miles of river Wild and Scenic Rivers protection—a federal protection which has built-in federal water rights; the proposal would grandfather in all existing water rights, giving junior status to any federal water rights

• Releasing 205,000 acres currently protected as wilderness study areas—these areas would become general public lands

• Closing approximately 1 percent of the county's nearly 10,000 miles of unpaved roads and trails

Going from a 2.7 million-acre wilderness proposal to a 510,000-acre wilderness proposal is indeed a compromise. But is it a balanced and fair compromise? Owyhee Initiative members are now gathering feedback from their constituents on the proposal. In addition, the Owyhee County Commissioners, who will vote on whether or not to accept the proposal, are holding two public hearings to gather public comment on the wilderness plan. The hearings will most likely take place the first and second week of May in Oreana and Marsing. The Commissioners are required to adhere to public meeting laws, therefore they must post a public notice 15 days in advance of each hearing in the Owyhee Avalanche—the county's official newspaper of record. Owyhee County Commissioners are receiving public comment on the proposal via e-mail at owyheeinitiative@cableone.net.

After gauging how the proposal is publicly received, the consortium will regroup and decide whether to present the plan to Sen. Crapo in its current form or modify it.

Not all environmental groups are pleased with the Owyhee Working Group and the direction they believe it is taking. Last week nearly a dozen representatives of local and regional environmental groups met to discuss their concerns. One major fear is that the Owyhee Initiative Proposal could set a new style of wilderness conservation—a "quid pro quo wilderness" precedent, meaning the integrity of wilderness designation would be compromised by using it as means to ease or bypass current land use rules or accomplish other legislation.

To view the full proposal, go to www.owyheeinitiative.org.

An Owyhee Initiative Town Hall meeting, hosted by The Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Idaho Conservation League, The Nature Conservancy and Idaho Rivers United, takes place Tuesday, April 20, 7 p.m. at Lindsay Hall, 9th and State streets.

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