History of Owyhee County

What is the Owyhee Initiative

What type of lands and rivers are protected?

How does Wilderness designation in the Owyhees impact access to public lands?

What benefits - economic and otherwise - does the OI offer the local community?

Is the OI a new model for dealing with federal land management issues in the west?

History of Owyhee County

The Owyhees are a vital part of America's heritage and the history of southern Idaho. Unique arrays of fossils are found here, from Saber-toothed Salmon to Pleistocene Wolverines and Scimitar-toothed Cats. The unique geology of the region includes deep gorges carved by the Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbidge Rivers, creating one of the largest concentrations of exposed rhyolite canyons in the world.

In this high, lonely desert, homesteaders scratched out a living or went bust while Native Americans clashed with the westward push of settlement along the Oregon Trail. Their stories are tied to this landscape. With nearly 3,000 cultural and historic sites, Owyhee County contains the richest concentration of archeological sites in Idaho.

Recent history has been equally dramatic centering on heated battles between different interest groups over management of the area. More than three-quarters of the almost 5 million acres in Owyhee County are public land, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. When changes are proposed for use and enjoyment of public lands, they get a lot of attention.

The first major proposal came from the U.S Air Force, to expand its training operations from Mountain Home Air Base to the south in Owyhee County - to include live bombs dropped on public land. The initial proposal triggered 10 years of public controversy, ending in 1998 with a scaled back electronic combat range over large areas of Owyhee County.

Controversy next centered on the effort to convince President Bill Clinton to declare a 2.7 million-acre Owyhee National Monument. In his last days in office, President Clinton highlighted the worthiness of an Owyhee National Monument but did not include it in his final monument designations.

Many efforts to protect the Owyhees over the last decade have been fueled by the impacts of livestock grazing on this arid and fragile landscape. These battles have drawn ever-greater attention, and various forms of public process, including the courts, have increased pressure and oversight, and in some cases, reductions in livestock grazing. These battles have kept many parties involved in the Owyhees at serious odds.

Today, for the first time in what has been years of fighting and debating, all the parties involved are sincerely working together to come up with real solutions. Dozens of one-on-one and larger group meetings have taken place to sort through wilderness issues, livestock grazing and recreational use. The group researched and distributed language from past wilderness legislation addressing fish and game management, military training, and other activities. Numerous aerial overflights of the Owyhees have been organized for County Commissioners, ranchers, recreationists, and congressional staff. Members of the Initiative have attended numerous field trips to look at grazing practices, prescribed burns, and candidate wilderness areas. While a final proposal has yet to be completed, significant progress has been made including an open and honest direct dialogue between diverse interests regarding wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, livestock grazing, landscape conservation, and off-road vehicle and recreational use.

What is the Owyhee Initiative?

The Owyhee Initiative (OI) is a consensus agreement reached by a number of national, regional, and local stakeholders to promote the ecological and economic health within Idaho’s Owyhee County.  The agreement was crafted by local ranchers, county representatives, conservationists, outfitters, the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe and others to address longstanding public lands issues in southwestern Idaho.   The agreement addresses concerns ranging from regulation of off-road vehicles, permanent protection of wilderness study areas, recognition of a traditional ranching way of life, voluntary livestock grazing retirements, and preservation of tribal culture and values.  While the OI agreement provides a framework for resolving these concerns, the Owyhee Initiative Implementation Act introduced by Sen. Crapo (R-ID) provides the necessary legal vehicle for implementing and enforcing the agreement.  

Taken together, the OI agreement and OI Implementation Act achieves the following: 

  • Designation of 517,000 acres of wilderness, including 55,000 acres of wilderness that will not be grazed by livestock.
  • Designation of 316 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers.
  • Closure of 200 miles of motorized trails in candidate wilderness areas and initiation of a travel planning process to establish a designated system of motorized routes for all public lands in Owyhee County. 
  • Better regulation and enforcement of indiscriminate and illegal ORV use in Owyhee County. 
  • Increased protections for Shoshone-Paiute cultural sites and resources.
  • Initiating of a county process to abandon all of its RS 2477 road claims in designated wilderness.
  • A commitment by those involved to seek support for research and conservation projects in Owyhee County
  • Science review of data and information used in BLM decisions on livestock and other management issues by independent, balanced panel of experts.
  • Opens closed roads across private land to provide better public access to public lands.
  • Resolution of decades-old public lands conflicts that will allow groups to move forward and address other important issues.
What type of lands and rivers are protected?

The landscape within the wilderness proposal is diverse, ranging from river canyons over a thousand feet deep to vast expanses of sagebrush and grassland plateaus that provide habitat for sage grouse, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, songbirds, raptors, and numerous rare plant species.  More than 230,000 acres of lands proposed for wilderness are upland plateaus and 224,000 acres are classified as low or moderate hills.   This high desert, sagebrush steppe habitat is not included in existing designated wilderness in Idaho and is generally underrepresented in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The river canyons in Owyhee County have been called the largest concentration of sheer-walled volcanic rhyolite and basalt canyons in the western United States.  Many of the canyons are more than 1000 feet deep, nearly twice as deep as the Washington Monument is tall.  River enthusiasts come from around the country to challenge the famous white water rapids of these rivers.

How does Wilderness designation in the Owyhees impact access to public lands?

In addition to the  517,000 acres of Wilderness and over 316 miles of rivers as Wild and Scenic Rivers that will be protected in perpetuity for future generations, the legislation authorizes acquisition of seven public rights-of-way across private lands.  These rights-of-way would provide access to significant federal lands that were previously difficult to reach because they were surrounded by private parcels.   

As mentioned above, the legislation directs the BLM to develop and implement transportation plans for public lands outside wilderness areas.  The plans are to establish a system of designated roads and trails and limit motorized and mechanized vehicles to designated routes.  Until the date that the BLM completes the transportation plans, all recreational motorized and mechanized vehicle use shall be limited to roads and trails in existence before the date of this act, i.e. cross-country travel is prohibited.

The BLM is to complete a travel plan for the Owyhee Front not later than one year after passage of the act and not later than 3 years for the rest of Owyhee County.

What benefits - economic and otherwise - does the OI offer the local community?

The OI enjoys wide spread support from the local community for a variety of reasons:

  • Under the existing unmanaged recreation scenario in the Owyhee area, ORV users cross many of ranchers’ lands illegally.   The OI would provide more resources for monitoring and regulating ORV use, curtailing illegal ORV trespass. 
  • Designation of wilderness and wild and scenic rivers provides ranchers, the recreation community and the community at large more certainly regarding future land use decisions and tourism marketing. 

The Conservation and Research Center created under the legislation will initiate landscape-scale programs to review, recommend and coordinate landscape conservation and research projects.  The Center could provide opportunity for jobs for the area, as well as important regional ecological data.

  • Additional economic opportunities would be available through cooperative agreements with Owyhee County regarding search and rescue programs and the enforcement of transportation plans.
Is the OI a new model for dealing with federal land management issues in the west?

The collaborative process used to formulate the OI agreement could certainly serve as a model for addressing public lands issues in other states, but the OI agreement itself is not intended to be replicated.  While the Initiative is a place-based agreement that worked successfully for southwestern Idaho at this particular time, different regions are going to have different political, community, and economic dynamics. 

What has become clear from the Owyhee collaborative process is that, even when dealing with some of the most polarized land management issues in recent western history, when diverse stakeholders are brought together as individuals, and listen to the needs and concerns of the others, real understanding and progress can be achieved.

For more information, feel free to contact any one of the people on our contact page.