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The secret is out: The world found the Owyhees. Advocates say it's time to protect the land

Sally Krutzig, The Idaho Statesman on

Published in Science & Technology News

Just southwest of Boise lies one of the last vast swaths of solitude in the United States.

The Owyhee Canyonlands, with stunning red gulches, winding rivers and a moon-like landscape where a volcano with a caldera once 600 times larger than Mount St. Helens erupted, stands as the largest unprotected wilderness area in the American West.

Locals might have once seen the Owyhees as the area’s best-kept secret: national park-quality wilderness without the tourists.

Advocates say those days are gone. The secret is out, they say, and the repercussions of not enacting federal protections could be irreversible — to the point that even those most skeptical of government regulation agree that the Owyhees are facing unprecedented change.

The number of people visiting the Owyhees has grown along with the Treasure Valley’s population. The Lower Owyhee Canyon and Lake Owyhee have seen an average of 250,000 visitors per year for the past seven years, according to the nonprofit group Friends of the Owyhee. A viral social media video of Leslie Gulch garnered more than 21 million views and attracted international travelers.

Advocates say that influx — along with a complicated mix of unregulated recreation, invasive species, wildfires and mining claims — could irrevocably damage the pristine beauty of the 7 million-acre wilderness. The edge of the Owyhees is located about 60 miles southwest of Boise and extends past the Nevada-Oregon state line. Just 5% of that public land, most of which falls under the Bureau of Land Management, is permanently protected. Stakeholders want that to change.

 

Last month, Protect the Owyhee Canyonlands, a coalition of at least 14 groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, invited the Idaho Statesman to tour the Owyhees for an inside look at the deserts, plants, farmland and wildlife, and offer a glimpse at what conservation groups are hoping to modify when it comes to protection for the land.

Protection push faced decade of ups and downs

Advocates have been fighting to protect the land for nearly a decade. In 2015, groups petitioned former President Barack Obama to designate the Owyhees as a national monument.

Efforts seemed promising until January 2016, when the armed occupation of the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, led by far-right activist Ammon Bundy, made any type of environmental protection of the area too contentious an issue for politicians, according to Ryan Houston, executive director at the Oregon Natural Desert Association. Bundy’s fight against federal public land regulations garnered support and sympathy from some factions.

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