An Overview of the Owyhee Initiative

The Owyhee Initiative bargaining table

From a bombing range expansion to plans for a national monument, the debate over the Owyhee Canyonlands center on how the remote, mostly public land should be used. The range of opinions was as varied as the dozens of groups sparring over this immense desert country. But President Clinton's proposed Owyhee National Monument may have started the ball rolling toward a compromise. That's when local residents decided they needed to come up with a plan of their own.

We started ten years ago with the idea that Owyhee County had to solicit various groups and organizations to come to some kind of agreement to resolve conflicts over land use in the county. I proposed the idea of the Owyhee Initiative because I felt that if we started to talk and if they started to see each other as human beings they just couldn't be icy all the time.
--Fred Grant

And so county commissioners and conservation groups, ranchers and recreationists, the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe and many others came together to talk. After eight long years of give and take they reached a consensus. Senator Mike Crapo, who was involved from the beginning, took the carefully crafted legislation to Washington D.C. In the spring of 2009, as part of a national public lands act, the Owyhee Initiative was signed into law by President Obama.

Mike Crapo speaks to a group after the Initiative is signed.

It is a tribute to the spirit of collaboration that the people involved were willing to engage in. And when we were done, not only did we have a solution that all of the stake holders could buy into but we had a process by which they were all willing to help defend it as we move forward. And I believe this is one of the major reasons, if not the major reason, that we were able to get past the politics in Washington because we had built a local solution that was backed by all the stake holders.
--Senator Mike Crapo

A major element of the Initiative was the establishment of over five-hundred thousand acres of wilderness in the canyonlands. It's group into six areas including the Bruneau-Jarbidge, Little and Big Jacks Creeks, Pole Creek, the Owyhee River and the North Fork of the Owyhee. In addition, over 300 miles of wild and scenic rivers were designated for protection.

A scenic view of the Owyhee wilderness

At the same time, two-hundred thousand acres of prime country formerly tied up in wilderness study areas were released to multiple use. And cattle grazing is still allowed in some pristine places. There are payments to ranchers and a science review panel for resource issues. There will be new areas to ride atvs and enhanced recreation planning. And the Shoshone Paiute tribe gets help with the protection of cultural sites.

I think it really signified that people who thought they had nothing in common could sit down and come up with a joint proposal that each entity got something, including rivers and the scenic rivers and could move it forward together. So you had two things, it broke the thirty year drought we had for wilderness legislation and it showed that a really almost seemingly impossible collaborative effort could succeed.
--Craig Gehrke-Wilderness Society