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The Planet

Owyhee Canyonlands

By Tom Valtin

The first time most Sierra Club members heard of the Owyhee Canyonlands was in the mid-1990s when the Air Force announced plans to bomb it.

The plan called for expanding a southern Idaho bombing range by three million acres and using the Owyhee Canyonlands for target practice with dummy bombs. But the Sierra Club, working with a coalition of conservation, recreation, and hunting groups, beat back the proposal. In fact, they beat it back three times, arguing that it would negatively impact river runners, hikers, hunters, and critical bighorn sheep habitat. The Air Force eventually settled for a 12,000-acre expansion—a tiny fraction of what it originally sought.

“The bombing range threat really energized the Sierra Club in this part of Idaho,” says Northern Rockies (Idaho) Chapter Vice Chair Marty Marzinelli. “We picked up a lot of new volunteers after that.”

Many of those volunteers are working today to secure protection for the Owyhee Canyonlands—referred to locally as the Owyhees. Roger Singer, now a field staffer in the Club’s Northwest office, was a longtime organizer for the Middle Snake River Group. Five years ago he sat at the negotiating table with the Air Force for two and a half days hammering out an agreement. “What’s amazing to me,” he says, “is that our campaign for the Owyhees is no longer merely defensive, trying to fend off DOD, but a proactive campaign to permanently protect these lands as wilderness.”

In fact, two campaigns have sprung up in recent years to protect the Owyhees. In Idaho, the same coalition that beat back the bombing range—including the Sierra Club—has remained intact as part of the Owyhee Initiative Task Force, working to protect Idaho’s portion of the Owyhees.

As well, a Greater Owyhee Canyonlands campaign was formed two years ago by Oregon, Northern Rockies, and Toiyabe (Nevada) Chapter leaders to protect wilderness-quality lands in the three-state Greater Owyhee ecosystem. Their slogan: “Three States…One National Treasure.” The idea of a tri-state campaign was envisioned by a group of Sierra Club leaders from the three states during the 2002 Owyhee Rendezvous. Sponsored by the three chapters and open to the public, Rendezvous participants raft, hike, learn about the area’s wildlife and natural history, and discuss wilderness activism. There have now been six Owyhee Rendezvous events, held each June.

Located in the remote expanse where Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada converge, the Owyhee Canyonlands are one of the largest intact and unprotected desert ecosystems in the American West. In fact, a three-million-acre chunk of the Owyhees constitutes the largest unprotected roadless area in the Lower 48 states.

The many branching forks of the Owyhee River system form a vast complex of deep, sheer-walled canyons and desert wilderness. River runners come from around the nation, lured by the Owyhee’s whitewater. An enclave of solitude and sublime natural beauty, these remote canyons also provide a home for the nation’s largest herds of California bighorn sheep. Between the canyons, sage plateaus support large herds of pronghorn antelope, and more than 95 kinds of wildlife and migratory birds use extensive juniper groves thought to be among Idaho’s oldest forests.

But the Owyhee country is today threatened by off-road vehicle abuses, overgrazing, mining, and road-building. Efforts to gain wilderness protection for the region are complicated by the three-state patchwork, which fragments the landscape into a disconnected system of designations and administrations. One of the challenges facing wilderness advocates is fostering public perception of the Owyhee Canyonlands as a contiguous, interconnected system.

Passage of a multi-state wilderness bill appears unlikely given the current political climate. In Idaho, citizen efforts in the late 1990s came very close to establishing an Owyhee National Monument. As with Steens Mountain in Oregon (see facing page), the very notion of a national monument helped bring ranchers and ORV groups to the negotiating table. “A lot of the folks who wouldn’t normally work with us decided that a collaborative approach wasn’t such a bad idea,” says Marzinelli.

The result was the formation in 2002 of the Owyhee Initiative Task Force, a coalition of conservationists, ranchers, elected officials, and sportsmen, to resolve long-standing land use issues and gain protection for the Idaho portion of the Owyhees. The task force recently issued a draft proposal for public comment, which recommended 511,000 acres of new wilderness (the first addition of wilderness in Idaho in 24 years), 392 miles of Wild & Scenic River protections, and establishment of a management plan to end off-road vehicle abuses.

Roger Singer says the Owyhee Initiative isn’t a perfect wilderness bill, but it’s a solid proposal that will help protect the Owyhees sooner rather than later, before more damage is done or the political obstacles become even more daunting. He points out that efforts are already under way by the Bush administration and its allies in Congress to scrap many existing or citizen-recommended wilderness study areas (WSAs). For example, Idaho congressman C.L. “Butch” Otter recently introduced legislation to sunset any WSAs that aren’t acted upon by Congress within 10 years.

“The Owyhee Initiative is still a work in progress,” says Marzinelli. “The Northern Rockies Chapter hasn’t yet said ‘yes, we’re supporting it,’ but the chapter fully supports the collaborative process. We just need to keep pushing for strong wilderness protections in the initiative.”

“Philosophically, I think the question is whether to get what you can as soon as possible, or to wait until there’s a change of administration and push for something even better,” says Oregon Chapter High Desert Committee Chair Ken Snider. The Sierra Club and other groups have been conducting a re-inventory of BLM lands across the West in order to fight for the protection of deserving areas like the Owyhees.

Toiyabe Chapter activist Mike McCurry, one of the founders of the tri-state Owyhee campaign, started going to the canyonlands with his dad when he was ten. McCurry’s mother was born on a ranch in the Owyhees and his great-grandfather lies buried there, felled by a rattlesnake bite. “One of the biggest challenges we face in developing a national awareness of the Owyhees is that it’s so remote,” McCurry says. “I’d like to work with the BLM to post signs at entry points to the Owyhee Canyonlands, identifying the Owyhee watershed as a single, magnificent geological/ecological system.”

“Once people know about the Owyhees,” says Oregon Chapter Chair Jill Workman, “the area practically screams, ‘Protect me!’”

Take Action

Write or call the BLM and comment on the need for permanent protection for the Owyhee Canyonlands. Encourage the BLM to protect all WSAs in the Owyhee Canyonlands as wilderness.

Idaho: BLM Owyhee field office, 3948 Development Avenue, Boise, Idaho 83705; (208) 384-3300; or e-mail field manager Jenna Whitlock.

Oregon: BLM Vale District office, 100 Oregon Street, Vale, Oregon 97918; (541) 473-3144; or e-mail district manager Dave Henderson.

Nevada: BLM Elko District office, 3900 E. Idaho St., Elko, Nevada 89801; (775) 753-0200; or e-mail Field Office Manager Helen M. Hankins.

Watch a slide show of Owyhee images.

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