Owyhee Initiative

Posted: Feb 1, 2005
Written by: 
Britta Beckstead


Updated February 2011

Location: Owyhee County in Southern Idaho

Collaboration Partners: Owyhee Cattlemen's Association, Owyhee County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Owyhee Farm Bureau, Owyhee Borderlands Trust, The Nature Conservancy, The Wilderness Society, The Wild Sheep Foundation, Idaho Conservation League, Back Country Horsemen of Idaho, Sierra Club, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, Southwestern Idaho Desert Racing Association.

Objectives: To develop and implement a landscape-scale program in Owyhee County that:

  • Preserves the natural processes that create and maintain a functioning, un-fragmented landscape supporting and sustaining a flourishing community of human, plant and animal life 
  • Provides for economic stability by preserving livestock grazing as an economically viable use 
  • Provides for protection of cultural resources


  • Deciding what the OI agreement would include and realizing that it could not address every public lands issue in Owyhee County.
  • Building trust among the participants.
    Following through on issues unsupported by legislation and even those with such support.
  • Reductions in the BLM’s budget, which will likely reduce the agency’s ability to work on the issues.

Project Summary:

Owyhee County is not only home to fossils, archeological sites, and unique geological features, but also debates over the management of the five million acres of public land. Because of the population boom in nearby Boise, one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the West, more people are seeking recreation opportunities in the county's remote labyrinth of basalt canyons, sagebrush steppe, and grasslands. These people range from off-road vehicle users, to whitewater rafters, to hikers and backpackers seeking solitude. The region's vast ocean of sagebrush is home to wildlife including sage grouse and antelope, while the juniper-studded uplands support bighorn sheep, elk, and deer. Several rare plants that are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act are also found in the Owyhee.

Relationships between ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have been contentious during the past two decades, as the agency has cut livestock numbers on federal grazing allotments to protect riparian areas and meet Clean Water Act requirements. At the same time, anti-grazing groups have filed numerous lawsuits, forcing the BLM to further reduce grazing. In addition, the area encompasses several Wilderness Study Areas covering nearly 700,000 acres, where ranchers haven't been allowed to build fences or stock tanks that, they say, are necessary for keeping cattle out of stream bottoms and other sensitive areas.

Conservation groups have attracted attention to protecting the Owyhee. As President Clinton left office in 2001, 2.7 million acres came close to being designated a national monument - a proposal that, while supported by many at the national level, raised the ire of Owyhee County's 11,000 residents. In 2001, county officials, who wanted protection for the region to occur on their own terms, organized a collaborative effort between ranchers, environmentalists, motorized users, and outfitters. This effort, known as the Owyhee Initiative, created a consensus agreement that protects the natural resources and landscape, while maintaining the viability of the county's ranching economy. In 2009, the Public Lands Management Act was passed. Also in 2009, members of the Owyhee Initiative filed incorporation papers and are currently working on establishing themselves as a non-profit organization.

Lessons Learned:

  • Each region needs a collaboration plan specific to it because of varying local politics, economics, and community elements. 
  • Respect the goals and viewpoints of others. 
  • Be up front about your organization’s goals. 
  • Learn to listen and ask questions for clarification.
  • Focus on buy-in from the local people who will be affected the most by your organization’s actions.
  • Prepare to be attacked by other organizations who might not agree with your approaches.


The Owyhee Initiative (OI) and Public Lands Management Act (PLMA) have designated 517,000 acres of wilderness area and 316 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers; closed 200 miles of motorized trails and initiated a travel planning process to establish a designated system of motorized routes; created better regulation of Off-Road Vehicle use and increased protections for Shoshone-Paiute cultural sites; established scientific review of data used for BLM decisions by an independent panel; and opens closed roads across private land to provide better public access to public lands. Even after the passing of the PLMA, the parties involved in the drafting of the OI agreement are still meeting regularly because, in the words of Kevin Brown, “no one considered the OI ‘done’ with the passage of the legislation.” The group has been using their funding to conduct science reviews, buying Animal Units Months (AUMs, the amount grazed per livestock over time) in designated wilderness areas, and acquired private lands from ranchers.

Additional Information: Owyhee Initiative’s Website: http://www.owyheeintiative.org/

Contact information: Craig Gehrke, The Wilderness Society, craig_gehrke@tws.org

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