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Owyhee Desert: Ranching, Recreation, Conservation, Way of Life

Sprawling across Southwestern Idaho, Northern Nevada, and Eastern Oregon is the sparsely populated Owyhee desert. It's six million acres of volcanic rock, sagebrush, and rugged canyons. Here cowboys still ride the range, and rafters float down lonely rivers. Most of this high desert is public land, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

Kate Kitchell photoKate Kitchell: "First of all, I'd say the biggest challenge is something you've already talked about and that is the increasing diversity and complexity of public land users."
View Kitchell interview

With the rising population in the west, more people are rediscovering the value of these arid lands. The renewed interest in this desert country has challenged the Bureau of Land Management to redefine the way it meets it's multiple-use mandate. Activities like ranching, mining, and even military training have to be balanced with recreation, wildlife, and conservation.

Equally important are Native American sites and artifacts. The BLM now regularly meets with local tribes to discuss management policies. It's part of a program called Wings and Roots.

Terry Gibson: "It's allowed the tribe to sit at the table with the decision-makers within the BLM and express our concerns about these areas, these non-renewable resources that we're concerned about protecting."
View Gibson interview

Working with the BLM is important to residents of the Duck Valley Indian reservation. The reservation is in the middle of the Owyhee country and is nearly surrounded by public land. Land their ancestors used for centuries.

Ted Howard: "We are a living culture and sites such as this one here are very important to our people still and in the future will continue to be important."
View Howard interview

Other residents of this high desert country are also concerned about the future. Many Owyhee county ranchers are battling lawsuits over the impact of grazing on public lands. They feel the suits threaten a lifestyle that has been part of this landscape for more than 100 years.

Mike Hanley photoMike Hanley: "Young people have been driven away because of this constant round of litigation and this fighting. They can find out they can get a job someplace else with more security. I absolutely have no idea if I'll be able to run cattle next year or not."
View Hanley interview

Coping with new challenges is a big part of the discussion at this annual meeting of the Owyhee Cattlemen's Association. It's a well-attended meeting that also includes representatives of the BLM.

They're here to talk about various management plans and to get some feedback from ranchers.

Chris Salove photoChris Salove: "There are less cattle on the land today than there ever have been, and in large part it's because of the increases in other uses. We believe we can protect the land and have the uses, and we wouldn't want it any other way. We won't destroy the land because that is our future."
View Salove interview

Kate Kitchell: "Most important to listen to what people's concerns are and try to find middle ground and apply middle ground to pieces of geography."

Kitchell and other BLM staffers have to walk a fine line to try to find that middle ground. Often what one group wants is not what another group has in mind.

Here at another gathering in the Owyhees a different set of goals is being discussed. This is the annual rendezvous put on by the Owyhee Canyonlands coalition. The coalition is made up of a number of conservation groups and others that say overgrazing, excessive off-road use, and other impacts are damaging the land. They'd like to see more protection for the area.

Roger Singer photoRoger Singer: "We have been as a coalition working to find some means of better protection for this area for the last couple of decades."
View Singer interview

Mike Hanley, a local rancher, is on the other side of the fence. He says monument designation won't help.

Mike Hanley: "I think that's regressive because it's been proven many times over that the 'let it go back to nature' thing and utopia doesn't exist and every time somebody's tried it it's been a failure. There's always management and scientific principals applied to not only management of land but everything else and as long as best management practices are followed I don't think there's going to be a problem."

Hanley and members of the Canyonlands coalition know each others' arguments well. In fact this year's Owyhee rendezvous took place on land that is part of Hanley's BLM allotment. Some of his cowhands didn't appreciate that choice of locations. But despite big differences of opinion Hanley stopped by to talk with rendezvous participants. Both sides say they really prefer conversation over litigation.

Roger Singer: "We respect the local community that's out here and ranchers who have been here historically. Our intent is never to end grazing or kick ranchers off the land; the intent is to permanently protect the resources out here and the land."

Mike Hanley: "The reason it's so attractive is because people like myself have been managing it and have maintained it like that. Without people like us that are tied to the land there wouldn't be anything worth saving."

Katie Fite of the Committee for Idaho's High Desert disagrees. She feels current management policies aren't protecting the land.

Katie Fite photoKatie Fite: "There have to be fundamental changes made I think in the way the land is perceived. Whether it's something you use to extract the maximum amount of cow flesh from or whether it's something that you do take measures to protect for everybody and not just do what benefits you the most economically."
View Fite interview

Needed protection or unnecessary regulation -- it depends on your viewpoint. People for the Owyhees, another group interested in the area, backs the ranchers' right to be here. They also contend the national monument proposal is just a way to keep some users out.

Sandra Mitchell photoSandra Mitchell: "This land has been used for hundreds of years by grazers, by recreationists and it's unspoiled. And the reason it's unspoiled is because those of us who use the land love the land, and we're intent on making sure it is protected as much as possible. So I think that reasonable, responsible use of the public lands by grazers, by recreationists is certainly appropriate."
View Mitchell interview

There are multiple issues and multiple opinions surrounding the public land in the Owyhees. Another organization looking for some common ground in the debate is the Nature Conservancy. In 1996 the Conservancy purchased the 45 ranch on the south fork of the Owyhee river. With the purchase of the 240 acre ranch it also received a 70 thousand acre federal grazing allotment. But Trish Klahr says that instead of eliminating grazing on the allotment the Conservancy decided to continue the operation on a smaller scale. She points out it was one way the group could try to work with local ranchers.

Trish Klahr photoTrish Klahr: "In order to gain the trust of the other people that are working out here we have chosen to continue traditional uses such as livestock grazing. Some consider that a very controversial move, but it has allowed us to gain the trust of some folks to really have conversations on what do we want the future of this land to look like. How can we work together since we're all out here?"
View Klahr interview

That is the central question. How can such a diversity of users reach a compromise and find a way to share this precious resource?

Kate Kitchell: "Well, I certainly believe there is a way to bring people together. I think that we probably have more in common than not. What draws people to the debate is usually a passion about the place. It requires a lot of commitment and optimism to bring folks together. And again, we have to remember that the cornerstone is the land and that's what we're all here for."

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