An Interview with Mike Crapo

Mike Crapo is the senior U.S. Senator from Idaho and was instrumental in shepherding the Owyhee Initiative through Congress. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2010.

Mike Crapo

Bruce Reichert: Why did you want to get involved with the Owyhee initiative?
Mike Crapo: First of all, the Owyhee canyonlands and the area around them are one of the most incredibly gorgeous parts of Idaho – and we have plenty of that in Idaho. But as with many of the other places in Idaho, there had been conflict and gridlock and dispute for decades about how do we manage this incredible part of Idaho we call the Owyhee canyonlands.

There had been proposals from the President to lock it up as a national monument, and others thought not only was that a huge threat, but that we should have no decision-making from different perspectives other than the way it had been managed for years.

We don't need to have the trade-offs between the economy and the environment that the conflict mode of decision-making often drives us to. There are solutions out there that are better for everybody, and we can achieve those solutions if we'll get together and collaborate in the right way and build the consensus for progress.

So I was excited to hear that there was an opportunity for people to come together and start a process that would get us there.

BR: You mentioned that every stakeholder around the table improved their position because of the Owyhee Initiative agreement.
MC: That is true, and when you think about it, if you compare what we were able to achieve over the 8 year process of the Owyhee Initiative, we were able to build a broad consensus in which every single stake holder, every interest group is better off under the Owyhee initiative than they were under the existing law, or under the status quo.

That includes everything from private property owners to environmental concerns, to the Tribes, to the Air Force, to the hunters and fishermen, to the off-road vehicle users, and the list goes on. Everybody is better off because we worked together, and we developed a comprehensive land management solution that literally boosted everyone's stake in the management of the Owyhee's.

Sunrise over Hummock Lake, Boulder Chain Lakes, White Clouds Mts., Sawtooth National Recreation Area, IdahoBR: So, if you get the 'process' right, the results will follow?
MC: Yeah, that is true. In fact, many people at the outset said we've been fighting over the canyonlands in Idaho for decades and decades, and what makes you think that this is going to be successful? Well, this was different, because this literally put the decision-making in the hands of the people who lived on the land, and who worked on the land around the area from whatever perspective they came from.

As people came together, they were able to build solutions that everyone recognized were better than the status quo, and that is why we were able to achieve success. We would never have succeeded had we not been able to have the buy-in and the support of all the stake holders.

BR: So maybe you could describe that process in some detail.
MC: I had been talking to people about the Owyhee canyonlands for years, and people from all different perspectives had come to me to help them achieve their objectives from one perspective or another.

It finally came to the point where the county commissioners came to me and said we think that we're ready, the community is ready to come together and really collaborate and try to find a solution; but we need someone to host it and to be in charge of it, who will assure that we have a fair and balanced process.

I was excited to have an opportunity to get involved, and from that point forward, we literally started by identifying all the stake holders and making sure that nobody was excluded from the table, and then working forward.

And as I have said before, it took 8 years, but the folks who got together and were the collaborative team literally went out on the land, went stream by stream, trail by trail, parcel by parcel and worked out the solutions. And there were plenty of times during that 8 years when it sounded like we were facing a hurdle that maybe we just couldn't get past this one; but we did, and 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 moved forward. And I believe that 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.

BR: It must have been a big surprise to the folks in Washington, D.C. to see this unusual group walk in together, all in agreement.
MC: That is true. Over the years we have developed a way to engage in conflict over our land management in this country, and what the Owyhee Initiative did was to bring those who had been for years engaged in that kind of conflict that our federal laws kind of promote, and it brought them together to collaborate. And they not only developed confidence in each other but, I think, in many cases, friendships.

And then when they came to Washington DC, those who had for decades seen this battle going on between different interest groups and stake holders, and they saw those stake holders standing shoulder to shoulder, saying this is a good solution, and this is something that will make it better for all of us in the Owyhee's; so they listened to it, and it was a big part of the success that enabled us to get that bill to the President's desk.

BR: This must have brought you real joy.
MC: I don't think that there are words to describe how happy I am at the outcome here. And I'll say, not only because we now have in place in the Owyhee's, a plan to move forward that will help everybody enjoy this incredible part of Idaho in a better way and will preserve it for the future; but also because this has become recognized nationally as a model. We still have a conflict mode of approaching land management decisions mostly across the country, but here is a model that showed how we can get past the conflict and actually build consensus.

Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness AreaBR: How have wilderness bills changed since the first ones in the 1960's?
MC: I think it is changing today, literally, as we speak. And what I mean by that is over the last 30 or 40 years, we evolved into what I've called the conflict mode of decision making. It was where people tried to see who couuld get the most standing there with signs and placards at the hearings, or who could get the best lawyers for the litigation, and it was really how to engage in conflict that was sort of the mode of decision making that we got pushed into, in my opinion, by the way that federal land policy statutes were crafted.

We're starting to realize now that what that results in is gridlock, because, whether you try to get your way in Congress or get your way in court or get your way in the administrative process and hearings, it is always going to be resisted by those who don't have buy-in. And I think recently, everyone involved – from all stake holder positions -- has recognized that that gridlock is disadvantageous to their positions on a long term basis, and we are starting to move into a better understanding of the role that consensus building and collaboration can have in terms of land management decisions.

And you'll notice I said land management decisions. It's not wilderness, it is not private property only. It is all of the different multiple uses that are possible in a given area, and as the stake holders from all the given perspectives come to understand that they truly are going to have a role in developing the management decisions, it is then that we build those decisions I talked about before that are better than the status quo, and then that we can move forward.

We can make decisions about how to manage this incredible environmental heritage that we have in America without having to totally trade off one interest against the other. Those interested in a robust resource based economy can be accommodated, and we can have a strong economy while having strong, lasting protections for our environmental heritage, and we don't have to treat one of them as the enemy of the other.

BR: Still, it's relatively easy for any one interest group to stall or blow up the process at the last minute.
MC: Yeah, it is. As a matter of fact, not just at the last minute, but at many stages along the way. What we as a society have learned, and individual interest groups have learned, is that there are many points at which you can cause litigation or administrative delays or political conflict that can delay the decision making process if you are in that conflict mode of decision making.

But what I have learned from that is pretty much any interest group with any kind of significant backing can stall or even stop something from happening, but it is very hard to build progress and to help create something that moves forward unless you are willing to involve a true collaborative approach. And once you are committed to working together for a solution rather than trying to figure out how to gum it up or to drive it through against opposition, then you can make progress – and I think that is one of the lasting lessons we get from the Owyhee's.

BR: I'm curious how you deal with a group that just absolutely does not wish to compromise on, say, any more wilderness.
MC: I think it is important to note that when we talk about the collaborative process or consensus building, that it does not mean that you are accepting one objective or another at the expense of a different one. You will note that when I talk about the Owyhee Initiative, I don't call it just a wilderness bill. It is a comprehensive land management bill that dealt with many, many different aspects of how we will manage that incredible place – one of which ended up being wilderness.

Owyhee Canyonlands meeting with stakeholdersThe reason that wilderness was able to be achieved as one of the objectives in that process was that people who I'm sure came from the original position of 'no more wilderness' were able to see their interests taken into consideration. They were able to negotiate solutions to the concerns that they had with wilderness designations. And in the end, there was a comprehensive approach developed that was able to help them see their way to working with a system that did ultimately have some wilderness designation in it.

But again, I think that the way to approach this is not to say, how do we achieve more wilderness or less wilderness, or how do we have more of this or less of that, but instead to say that all interests should have a stake at the table, and their interests need to be taken into consideration, and that we have to build consensus.

BR: So, is this the approach that will work for the Boulder-White Clouds as well?
MC: With regard to CIEDRA, I think that the ultimate solution is the same as it was with regard to the Owyhee's, and as it will be with regard to any other major land management conflict that we have going.

We all know that we have become really good at fighting over land management decisions in different, beautiful parts of Idaho. If we're going to resolve it, we're going to resolve it through a true collaborative effort that will bring all the parties together and help us to build consensus on pathways forward.

That is my commitment to the CIEDRA legislation. We have a few issues that are remaining, and some of the prominent political figures in Idaho are speaking out about the fact that we need to resolve these remaining issues before we move forward, and I agree. And ultimately we will find a pathway forward – if we do – through collaboration and consensus building, bringing all parties to the table instead of trying to find a way to cram through or to stall the particular decision making process.

The best way I could put it is, I continue to have confidence that we have set the kind of model with the Owyhee's that we need to follow, and that is to build true consensus through proper collaboration, and if we do that, we'll find a pathway forward.