Friday, April 25, 2008

Owyhee legislation gets boost

Express Staff Writer

A bill to protect 517,000 acres of remote desert canyonlands and 316 miles of free-flowing rivers and streams in Idaho's southwest corner found a receptive audience earlier this week in Washington, D.C.

In a hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, the Owyhee Public Lands Management Act was praised by subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. The sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, reintroduced the bill into the U.S. Senate on April 9, a news release from his office states.

In comments during the hearing, Wyden commended the members of the Owyhee Initiative Work Group for their record of collaboration in developing the comprehensive land-use legislation since 2001. He noted that Tuesday, the date for Earth Day 2008, was an appropriate day to hold such a Senate hearing.

Wyden and other subcommittee members, including Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, participated in the questioning of witnesses from Idaho, the U.S. Department of Interior and the Forest Service. The hearing was held to discuss both Crapo's bill and another land-management bill sponsored by Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Wyden directed Senate staff to work with federal agencies, Crapo and others to mark up the Owyhee Canyonlands legislation before sending it on to the full Senate, the news release from Crapo's office states.

"The Owyhee Initiative transforms conflict and uncertainty into conflict resolution and assurance of future activity," Crapo testified during the hearing. "This will all happen within the context of the preservation of environmental and ecological health."

If ultimately approved by Congress, the legislation would designate 517,196 acres in six wilderness areas. Lands designated as wilderness include steep-walled canyons inhabited by bighorn sheep, some more than a 1,000 feet deep, as well as miles of rolling sagebrush steppe habitat and grassland plateaus occupied by sage grouse, pronghorn antelope and raptors. Wilderness study areas not designated as wilderness by the bill, totaling 199,000 acres, would be released to multiple use.

The bill would also lead to the closure of 200 miles of motorized trails within areas designated as wilderness. Streams and rivers protected as Wild and Scenic rivers include numerous forks of the Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbidge rivers.

Crapo said the legislation seeks to keep ranching operations whole through land trades, purchase agreements and offers.

The bill will likely be voted on by the full Senate sometime later this summer as part of a larger package of similar land-use bills, Crapo's press secretary Lindsay Nothern said.

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