Breaking down human barriers to protect wilderness in Idaho

Craig Gehrke pointing out features of Owyhee Canyonlands

People throughout Idaho rallied to add 517,000 acres of our state’s rugged Owyhee Canyonlands to the National Wilderness Preservation System in 2010, breaking a generation-long drought of wilderness designation in Idaho. During the previous 30 years, not a single acre of wilderness had been designated in Idaho -- despite the fact that the state has more candidate wildlands than any state outside Alaska.

How that dry spell finally ended, and other issues relating to wilderness in Idaho, was the subject of a great 30-minute Idaho Public Television documentary in October. I was fortunate enough to be able to share The Wilderness Society’s view of this triumph for Outdoor Idaho’s cameras as it brought a remarkable story to life … the story of how a wide range of people representing very different interests all came together for the common good. The collaboration among ranchers, conservationists, county officials, members of Congress, Native Americans, and many others led to the broadly-supported designation of the Owyhee Canyonlands as wilderness.

Watch the full Oct. 21 show titled “Wilderness in the 21st century” on Idaho Public TV’s Web site. On the show you’ll see spectacular aerial and on-the-ground footage of Idaho’s wild lands including the Owyhee Canyonlands, the Boulder-White Clouds, and much more of the state’s rugged backcountry.

Gehrke and partners in the Owyhee Canyonlands

The documentary also looks at challenges in the coming years for additional wilderness designation in Idaho, as well as the challenges land managers and wilderness proponents face in protecting the wilderness character of these lands for future generations.

The documentary offers a glimpse of how The Wilderness Society approaches building support for wilderness designations. Meeting face-to-face with those most potentially affected by wilderness designation and with local elected officials is a big part of some of the initial steps TWS takes to build support for wilderness. We go out on the ground to candidate areas to protect and talk with folks about wilderness management, boundaries and why areas should be protected as wilderness.

Just as important, we’re also listening. We’re listening to the concerns and viewpoints of others and trying to understand differing perspectives. We have found that longstanding disagreements are often based on misunderstandings or simple myths on both sides. Clearing those up turns out to be the first steps towards getting an honest discussion moving on wilderness designation.

All the parties to the Owyhee effort took an enormous leap of faith to make it happen. All parties were criticized by their traditional allies and their detractors loudly predicted failure. But the folks who came together for the Owyhees were more interested in trying something different than in reiterating tired old platitudes.

The successful effort for the Owyhee Canyonlands showed that wilderness designation in Idaho is alive and well. Better yet, as even reporters noted in the documentary, if this kind of collaboration can work in Idaho, it can work anywhere.

Craig Gehrke pointing out features of Owyhee Canyonlands.
Gehrke with partners in Owyhee Canyonlands.