Owyhee Canyonlands:  A Lesson in Perseverance

By Robin Fehlau

The remote desert canyonlands of southwest Idaho have long been a political battlefield.  For years, environmentalists, ranchers, and recreationists disagreed on how this fragile beautiful landscape should be managed and preserved.  This animosity came to a head in the late 1990s when then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced the area was being considered for designation as a national monument.  The monument proposal was not enacted, but it did spur an unlikely, and initially uncomfortable, group of people to come together.

The Jarbidge Wild and Scenic River flows through a gorge in the Owyhee Canyonlands.
The Jarbidge Wild and Scenic River.  (BLM)
The group included representatives from The Wilderness Society and Sierra Club, the off-highway vehicle (OHV) community, the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe, as well as local landowners, ranchers, and Owyhee County elected officials.  They had little to no trust in each other at first, but there was one thing on which all parties could agree:  the status quo in the Owyhees wasn’t working, and if something wasn’t done soon, the area would be irreparably damaged.

Growth in the Boise area had resulted in increased visitation to Owyhee County, and unfortunately, many of the new visitors did not understand the fragile nature of the ecosystem.  A proliferation of roads and trails resulted in increased erosion.  The Native American community began seeing an increase in vandalism of sacred sites, and private property owners were angered by numerous trespasses and trash left on their lands.  These problems were a concern to all of the “Owyhee group,” and with this one point of agreement that something needed to be done, they started talking.

The process of finding common ground was slow.  There was meeting after meeting.  Over time, and over meals, members of the group began to gain some trust in each other.  Repeated field trips to the Owyhees helped build and increase that trust.  Each side had the chance to have experts speak about the various issues of concern, and group members found it easier to be frank with each other when they were in the field.  Being in the place they all cared about, they began to really listen to each other.  Ranchers explained their concerns about range quality, water, and harassment of their animals, while conservationists discussed fears about noxious weeds, reduced sage-grouse populations, and the effects of cross-country motorized travel.

Once a level of trust was established, the group began working on the details of what would eventually become a proposal for how the area should be managed.  They called it the Owyhee Initiative.  The initiative addressed some of the most sensitive issues in western politics, including cattle grazing, water rights, endangered species, wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, and off-highway vehicle use.

The Owyhee group found a champion in Senator Mike Crapo, who pledged to create legislation for the Owyhees if the group reached an agreement.  Senator Crapo believed that the collaborative approach of the Owyhee group could result in legislation that was broadly supported.  He also saw it as a model for other groups. 

After 8 years of meetings and an amazing amount of give and take, the group did reach agreement, and Senator Crapo did introduce legislation—the Owyhee Public Lands Management Act.  While the working group was pleased with the final bill, all felt that it wasn’t the document they would have written had it been up to them individually.  While no group got everything it wanted, all groups got something, and they managed to get beyond an unending lineup of litigation.

In March 2009, the Owyhee Public Lands Management Act passed as part of an omnibus lands package.  The legislation designated 6 wilderness areas (517,000 acres) and 16 wild and scenic rivers (more than 300 miles) and started a new era for the BLM in southwest Idaho.


Robin Fehlau has been the recreation, wilderness, and wild and scenic river lead for the BLM Idaho State Office since 2008.  Prior to that she was the travel management lead at the Utah State Office and an outdoor recreation planner in Utah.