Owyhee Country public lands bill passes key U.S. Senate committee

Yesterday I posted about the passage of the bill to protect the vast Wyoming Mountain range from oil and gas — a big matter for Wyoming.

The same committee also passed Idaho Senator Mike Crapo’s “Owyhee bill,” which failed at the last minute at the end of the last Congress.

This has been very controversial in Idaho with some conservation organizations and ag organizations saying it shows what can be accomplished to settle differences, protect the land and the traditions of the area if people are willing to settle down an talk and compromise over the long run.

Others are saying that yes it does show exactly what can be accomplished — not much protection and free money for well positioned ranchers who give up wasteland and “paper cows” for excessive payments.

This bill is likely to also pass the full U.S. Senate attached as a pdf file is the language of the bill as it passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Owyhee Bill as Passed by Committee

I should mention that this is a huge chuck of country.



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  1. Nathan Hobbs Avatar

    This sounds like a huge omnibus packet of legislation, the same committee also approved the Snake Headwaters river act today, if it makes it into law it will bar development of 430 some miles of river.


  2. Monty Avatar

    About a year or so ago, I read some of the details of the Owyhee “agreement’ & some of the described “wilderness” is nothing more than narrow riparian zones, less than a mile wide, where it is impossible to build a road. So some of the Owyhee wilderness can be appropriately described as “threaded wilderness” not unsimiliar to a uban river park.

  3. be Avatar

    The bill looks to have better language this time around given the Democratic congress though the details of land exchanges and buyouts are not being disclosed to the public despite efforts of interested public to acquire and review this important information about the bill. Transparency appears to be yet another value compromised away in the effort to secure “wilderness” block-lettering on the next print of Idaho maps.

    The Christian Science Monitor recently published a piece entitled Western Ranchers Fight for New Deal on Wilderness in which “purists” are criticized for suggesting that open access to the negotiations, public disclosure of the processes and details of the deals as well as widespread “compromises” affecting wildlife habitat and sweet-heart deals for billionaires call into question the legitimacy and integrity of the process of this wilderness designation. Well, that’s not exactly fair. Critics of the bill aren’t refuted for those reasons per se, to do so would bring these issues to light. Instead, ‘compromise’ and ‘collaboration’ are celebrated almost as ends in themselves. The key to this successful process has been to keep anyone who might disagree with you away from the table.

    One of the central concerns of critics of the Owyhee Initiative is not so much about the legitimacy of “compromise” versus “purism” of process as proponents of the bill seem to suggest and successfully frame in absolute terms when speaking with media. In fact, it’s almost ironic that ‘process’ would be celebrated and purported to be such a tenet of the designation – but that transparency of the process would be so neglected/difficult/avoided. When framed in terms of wildlife habitat or net ecological benefit – we encounter problems.

    Why designate wilderness ?

    There are many worthy values associated with wilderness. One of the prominent concerns is that this bill compromises away too many ecological values – the value of preserving wildlife habitat and diversity of wildlife – in favor of securing aesthetic wilderness values.

    Make no mistake, the give-and-take has assured that this is not a question of ‘take the little now and push for more later’. The bill releases to extractive development several Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in their entirety – over 300 square miles of ecologically important wildlife habitat that is protected now but would not be should the bill pass – that’s a loss of wildlife value – Owyhee Initiative Testimony 4/22/08:

    Released WSAs include magnificent old growth western juniper and labyrinthine rhyolite canyons on the Oregon border adjacent to lands proposed for Wilderness status by the Oregon Natural Desert Association in Oregon. In the three WSAs to be released here, ranchers have long sought to burn, spray and destroy mature and old growth forested vegetation to eke out more AUMs on grazing-depleted lands in the vicinity of Juniper Mountain.

    Released WSAs also include the sagebrush country of Sheep Creek East and West WSAs. At a time when sage-grouse, pygmy rabbits and other rare and declining sagebrush-dependent species are hurtling toward ESA listing, the is the last thing in the world Congress should be doing. Keeping these lands free of new roading and intensified livestock facilities and disturbance, which will result from release under this Bill, is in the public interest. Their release to placate a billionaire rancher, is not. The sagebrush WSAs and portions of WSAs targeted for hard release include critical sage-grouse lek, nesting, brood rearing, wintering and other habitats.

    The bill trades these and other ecologically important lands for “wilderness” designation on fragmented lands, many of which are canyon lands. Monty correctly refers to them as “threaded wilderness”. Granted, they’re mystical, scenic and ought be protected – but much of the area ‘preserved’ by this bill is land that is too rugged for industrial use anyway – it’s already “de facto wilderness”. The lands are similarly buckshot across the map – not contiguous.

    This is to say nothing of the effect that hundreds of miles of fencing will have on wildlife out there.

    Proponents purport that the urgency of the bill is premised on ORV user made trails – the problem with this argument is that there’s no enforcement anyway – To get an idea of the enforcement out there now – CHECK THIS OUT.

    Then there’s the ‘kinda-sorta wilderness’ in which grazing continues.

    There are many problems – but this comment is too long as is.

    The public deserves to know what the hell is going on with wilderness designation – and wildlife deserve efforts at designation keep them front and foremost, especially in this ecologically important area. That is NOT happening with this bill.

  4. Nathan Hobbs Avatar

    Not to kick a dead horse again, but if i read the pdf file correctly this area is going to be another wilderness area.
    Not fair to mountain bikers like me, I am not an oil rig and i deserve to have a pristine area to enjoy my low impact sport.

    Just wish there was something in between that would give me a place to enjoy the outdoors my way.

  5. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    Nathan, there are hundreds of thousands of acres in the US for you to enjoy your sport..

  6. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Actually, a major point of this is this most of this huge expanse is not going to be a Wilderness area. The Wilderness areas are almost all (or all) deep, nearly vertical-walled canyons with very little upland.

    The canyons are very scenic. Some provide rafting for short periods in the spring/early summer. Mountain biking is not a factor.

    The big factor is cattle. Most of the area will continue to be grazed, probably to excess.

    The bill does limit and, I think, attempt to restore some damage from off-road vehicles in places.

  7. Nathan Hobbs Avatar

    Thanks for the clarification Ralph,
    I guess we have to be glad for Wyoming taking a stand against the oil companys, we will have to wait for another day for the cattle grazing….

    From what I understand, (in my limited Geology courses I have taken so far) this range has a lot of oil, only problem being is you have to cut the mountains in half to get to it, most of it is interbedded with shalestone and requires ugly strip mining to extract it.

  8. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    Regarding the Wyoming Range and most of the Overthrust Belt ranges, the complexity of the faults makes hitting the natural gas difficult. For example, there is no simple anticline. Most of the deposits are hard to find even if large in size.

    We tend to think of a gas or oil field as similar in shape to a water reservoir, even if it is buried by many thousands of feet of other sediments. In the Wyoming Range, Salt River Range, Snake River Range, etc. it might be like a vertical and irregular cylinder — deep if you find it, but very hard to intercept. It might be a small pocket under great pressure, providing great flow, but quickly exhausted.

    The intense geological folding and overthrusting, with many side faults, means that the gas will have been subjected to heat and will probably be chemically modified, thus containing H2S (poisonous rotten egg gas). This requires a large industrial “sweetening” facility way up in the mountains before the gas can be piped.

    All this means more roads and drilling than in a more conventional gas field like the Pindale Anticline. Worse, the roads are on a mountain range where clays and other sediments prone to slide lie under harder rocks. Cut into a mountainside, and the angle of repose is quickly exceeded.

  9. Nathan Hobbs Avatar

    Fantastic information thank you, This blog is such a resource!

  10. PC Avatar

    Sounds like a win for the cattle industry. Not sure this is our Gov’t in action to protect lands from the oil exploration. This seems more like protecting the cattle industry from future oil exploration.
    I have always said the only good purpose for our Fed. Gov’t is to protect our lands and wildlife because their is no $ to be made doing this function. Wonder which cattle association is pushing for this land protection bill to pass.

  11. Aaron Avatar

    Hi Ralph,

    Great discussion about wilderness, the extraction industries and wilderness. Do you have any contact with the orgs. working on the Owyhee bill?


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan