Friday, March 13, 2009

Owyhee wilderness will have to wait for now

Legislation would protect 517,000 acres in southwest Idaho canyonlands

Express Staff Writer

Wilderness designation for Idaho's Owyhee Canyonlands will have to wait.

On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives rejected an effort to bypass committees and send a large package of lands bills to the full House without the possibility of amendment. The bill includes Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo's Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness bill. Nationwide, it would designate more than 2 million acres as new wilderness areas.

The House rejected the move to fast track the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 by a 282-to-144 vote, just two votes shy of the required two-thirds majority.

The bill, which has already been approved in the U.S. Senate, contains more than 150 land-management measures. Crapo's bill would protect 517,000 acres of high-desert uplands and steep-sided canyons in six wilderness areas—ranging in size from the 12,468-acre Pole Creek Wilderness to the 269,016-acre Owyhee River Wilderness—in Idaho's remote southwest corner.

It would also protect 316 miles of rivers in the Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbidge river systems under Wild and Scenic designations and release nearly 200,000 acres of wilderness study areas to multiple use.

Craig Gehrke, Idaho regional director of the Wilderness Society in Boise, a key supporter, said the vote doesn't mean the bill is dead.

"We're going to figure out another strategy to get it passed in the House," he said.

Gehrke said the House approved a key amendment to the bill that they had hoped would convince more conservative members to vote for the legislation. The amendment was an effort to soothe fears of gun rights advocates who claim the land bills may harm the rights of gun owners to hunt and fish on the lands included in the Omnibus bill.

According to Gehrke, the amendment states that nothing in the bill will restrict the rights to hunt and fish on the impacted lands, because "that's a state issue."

He said the bill's immediate future is unclear, but that House supporters and conservationists will find a way to move it along.

Jason Kauffman:

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