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
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
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
“Once people know about the Owyhees,” says Oregon Chapter
Chair Jill Workman, “the area practically screams, ‘Protect
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
Oregon: BLM Vale
District office, 100 Oregon Street, Vale, Oregon 97918; (541) 473-3144;
or e-mail district manager Dave
Nevada: BLM Elko
District office, 3900 E. Idaho St., Elko, Nevada 89801; (775) 753-0200;
or e-mail Field Office Manager Helen
Watch a slide show
of Owyhee images.
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