Featured Wilderness: A Look Back: Big Jacks Creek Wilderness, Southwest Idaho

While I have the great fortune to work on public land issues and travel to the West and Midwest on occasion, my visits don't always allow for much time in areas being proposed for wilderness or other designations like national recreation areas, national conservation areas and special management areas. The views from the plane and the rental cars are always spectacular, but by the time I've finished several days of meetings, I can't always take the extra days to explore the surrounding landscapes I've been admiring from afar. There's always legislation to monitor, meetings to make on Capitol Hill and kids to get home to.

In May of this year, however, during a meeting-filled trip to Boise and North Idaho, a colleague insisted I take a hike in a wilderness unit that was designated under the Owyhee Public Land Management Act in 2009, which Pew's Campaign for America's Wilderness helped pass. This consensus-based legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) and almost ten years in the development, is a testament to the perseverance and commitment of the senator and the very diverse stakeholders involved.

There is a new wave of thinking in the West, and Idaho is leading the way. Collaboration and dialogue is more commonly recognized as the key to lasting, successful management of our federal lands, as opposed to litigation and polarizing arguments from extremist groups on both sides.

The Owyhee Public Land Management Act was the first wilderness designated in the state in more than a quarter century and the first-ever Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wilderness designated in Idaho. It protected over 500,000 acres of BLM lands as wilderness and safeguarded 315 miles of river as wild and scenic. I'm proud of the new wilderness, of course. But I'm equally proud that the act is balanced and fair, addressing the needs of all the various participants.

I welcomed the chance to hike in a place we had ensured would stay wild forever. So very early on a beautiful May morning, I met up with Craig Gehrke and John McCarthy of The Wilderness Society's Idaho office to head out to Big Jacks Creek Wilderness. Ironically, we met at a local bagel bakery, the site of the very first meeting between the Owyhee County Commissioners representative and the conservation community, some eight years earlier. It was the commissioners who contacted the conservationists to see if they'd be willing to engage in a consensus-based stakeholder process to determine the future management of federal lands in Owyhee County. The commissioners were concerned the Clinton administration was going to proclaim much of their county—composed primarily of federal land—a national monument. They decided it was preferable to work out a local solution to the land management issues in the region. The conservationists, albeit tentative at first, were amenable, as were the many other groups the commissioners reached out to. This was the start of thousands of hours of meetings and field trips and negotiations that resulted in the Owyhee Public Land Management Act.

After a bumpy ride down a dirt road, we eventually reached our destination—Big Jacks Creek. It gave me a chill to see a sign in the area announcing, “Little Jacks and Big Jacks Wilderness areas.”

Despite the sunny day, the wind was going at a good clip and I was freezing. That changed soon enough as we started a hike down a gradual slope to a canyon overlook. The Big Jacks unit encompasses almost 53,000 acres, and we would cover about four miles that day. Owyhee country looks like a rolling, sagebrush covered plateau, until you come to a sheer drop off and find yourself staring down the wall of a canyon. The canyons are spectacular, as well as frightening; they sneak up on you, and Big Jacks Creek had the same effect on me. It appeared to go on for miles, forking off into different directions, eventually leading into the Snake River. Looking down into the canyon from a rocky outcropping was breathtaking; I can only imagine the views rafters or kayakers might encounter as they paddle by and see only sheer cliff and blue sky above.

The canyons, streams and plateaus of Big Jacks Creek Basin provide habitat for redband trout, mountain quail and bighorn sheep, as well as numerous plant species. For those who think cows are not allowed in wilderness, let me assure you they are. Established grazing is permitted and numerous cows were our companions for parts of our hike. I found them to be quite melodic. And, of course, all around us was sagebrush. The vibrant smell of the sagebrush, the possibility of finding an arrowhead (which I would have left exactly where I found it, of course), the knowledge that this rugged landscape would remain wild for generations to come—all these thoughts ran through my usually unsentimental head.

It is heartening to see the successful implementation of the Owyhee Public Land Management Act moving steadily ahead.

In 2009, the Owyhee Initiative Work Group filed incorporation papers to become the Owyhee Initiative Board of Directors and established itself as a 501(c)3 organization.

After the passage of the omnibus bill, members of the Owyhee Initiative Board of Directors began working with Senator Crapo's staff to secure funding for implementation of the legislative provisions.

In 2009,

  • $300,000 was appropriated by Congress to fund the science review program, administered in coordination with the University of Idaho.
  • $232,000 was appropriated by Congress for implementation of the Shoshone-Paiute Cultural Resource Protection Plan.
  • $650,000 was appropriated by Congress for recreation travel and transportation planning.

Additionally, beyond the amounts listed above, the BLM committed $75,000 to wilderness and recreation/off highway vehicle planning efforts of the Owyhee Initiative.

As per the omnibus legislation, an account has been established in the estimated amount of $2 million from the sale of surplus BLM lands in Owyhee County to specifically acquire in-holdings from private landowners.

Conservation groups have secured $2 million in private foundation money to compensate grazing permittees for the donation and subsequent retirement of livestock grazing permits in and adjacent to wilderness areas.

The Wilderness Land Trust, an organization dedicated to working with willing private landowners with inholdings in wilderness areas to acquire those lands for public ownership, was brought to Idaho by the conservation groups on the Owyhee Initiative Board of Directors and is meeting with landowners who have indicated an interest in selling their private inholdings.

The Owyhee Initiative Board of Directors and Senator Crapo are working on the next congressional appropriations, requesting:

  • $1 million for the science review program.
  • $1 million for the Shoshone-Paiute Cultural Resource Protection Plan.
  • $300,000 for recreation and travel planning.
  • $500,000 to develop wilderness and wild and scenic river management plans.
  • $500,000 for law enforcement coordinated efforts between Owyhee County and the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes.
  • $300,000 for environmental reviews, resource clearances, appraisals, etc. to facilitate land exchanges.

The Owyhee Initiative Board of Directors has also approved an action plan with the University of Idaho for conducting the science reviews.

A progress report details progress made during the second year of implementation of the act.

More collaborative processes to address federal land management issues are cropping up in the West. Not all will succeed—perhaps there won't be the right mix of personalities involved at the start. Perhaps there won't be enough agency buy-in or not enough patience for the long-haul. But even those initiatives that fail succeed in some respect by opening up a dialogue between interests that were diametrically opposed at one time. They at least begin to have conversations and better understand where the other group is coming from. This is always a step forward.