Owyhee Canyonlands Rendezvous

The last bit of road into the campground was almost too much for our road machine. But a donk or two on snaggly basalt boulders didn't puncture anything, and it survived.

A ways past the Mud Flat Administrative post of the BLM, across the dun and hazy Snake River plain and up out of Grand View, the name and route were not auspicious, nor inviting. Climbing out of Boise in mid-September, and heading southeast is beyond an acquired taste, and out into the genuinely hard to like.

It's dry, almost beyond overstatement. Straw blond and ready to burn. Treeless. Searing, even on a not particularly hot day. Rolling in an air-conditioned steel and glass bubble is one thing, but the view reminds you steadily that you would not want to be out there.

Yet the campsite was surprisingly more attractive than everything leading up to it. Past Simplot's stunning feedlot tucked under the Snake River palisades, past sleepy Grand View, past the brown and bare hills, up along streams that are a trickle at best, with only occasional clumps of willow and aspen to suggest the presence of water, up through open savanna of scrubby Mountain Mahogany, into the slightly denser spattering of Juniper.

We came to a relaxed old coulee, with one side a comfortable plopping of basalt, the other a healthy stand of Juniper. Eventually, we'd have a couple dozen vehicles just off the "road" of two dusty tracks through grass and sagebrush and cow pies. To add an element of incongruity, there was a yellow and white topped circus tent, and a trailer with a couple of those lovely orange and grey portable toilets bolted to it.

Contrary to the rumors that flew around the frantic local telephone tree, there were not hundreds or a thousand of us. Contrary to the notion of a couple local ranch hands, we were not on private land, but were safely within the boundary of public land, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. (Never thought of GPS as a means to facilitate civilized dispute resolution, but there you are.) The one or two cows sent our way were smartly sent packing by a couple of inexperienced but well-bred Red Heelers. And on Saturday, the Owyhee Sheriff actually stopped by, and bought himself one of the snazzy "Protect the Owyhee Canyonlands" T-shirts. Who better to have one?!

We were a cheerful, comfortably-maintained and -fed bunch of urbanites, out for the weekend in a place that's not used to seeing a dozen of any kind of animal at once any more, other than cattle. It's not hard to understand why the locals would get their backs up over a bunch of outsiders raising the dust. What did we know about this corner of Idaho? Who do we think we are, in our seldom-soiled cars and such, seeing some of these spots for the first (and maybe last) time?

Well, it's public land, after all. And even though it doesn't have the high-class tourist amenities of some such places, it's probably a good idea to have someone other than the "regulars" have a look at it from time to time. Those would be the folks who move the cows around, and who look after the folks who move the cows around.

And, we came willing to do a little work. We made some observations about the state of roads around a roadless area that happens to be a BLM Wilderness Study Area. Because of the particular verbiage of the Wilderness Act, roads are a very important consideration. Have they been constructed? Improved? Maintained? Do they have a purpose, like letting a rancher service a stock tank? Or did they just get carved in by a couple trips in the wet months, and followed along enough in summer to keep things from growing back in the tracks? Pointillist cow

The Wilderness Act also saw fit to leave that great western tradition of running cows grandfathered in. A rather curious combination: an improved road is a lasting sign of man's presence (in the manly way we used to say things back in the 60s), but the really profound land use behavior - grazing cows - is a quaint remnant that we're not ready to give up any time soon, so let us not let that interfere with The Act. Or more correctly, let not The Act interfere with our god-given Western Livelihood.

At the beginning of the weekend, I was feeling a bit out of my element, wondering what business I had supposing I could know how this place should be managed. But more than once over the course of it, I found myself wondering what this place used to be like, when there were deer, and antelope, and sage grouse, and more diverse plant communities. It's hard to know at this point. And politically difficult to take any steps toward finding out.

The moment of maximum contrast came Saturday evening, after a wonderful dinner with the whole group, as the last light of day gave way to the half moon on the clouds. The little generator we used to power a slide projector for a talk from an anthropologist had been shut off, and the crickets could again make themselves heard over conversation.

A couple of fellows from the Duck Valley Indian Reservation spoke next, around a campfire, rather than in front of a projector screen. They reminded us of some things we don't dwell on much any more, like the extermination campaign a little over a century ago that paid a bounty for Indian scalps - $100 for a man's, $50 for a woman's, $25 for a child's.

They talked about how this was one of many different areas they used for their subsistence, answering the unasked question of "how could anyone live out here?" They talked about hunting deer, and not taking the biggest bucks, because they were kinda tough, you know. And mostly, they expressed a deep and long-standing relationship to the part of the planet they lived on.

That Mother Earth thing. Something we pretty much had to give up to maintain an urbanized, industrialized culture with efficient resource exploitation and distribution. They weren't real keen on reconstructed M.E. religionists trying to co-opt their culture, which I can understand. On the other hand, having us all stick to our own cultures hasn't worked out that well, either, so some adjustments may be in order.

It does seem to me that designating some chunks of this Wilderness might be a pretty good thing, and the BLM should get off its butt, show some political will and make it happen. I'd also like them to show the will to allow for some other system of land management than hamburger welfare, too, but I'm not going to hold my breath on that one.

It's not all that easy to get to now, and it's not the sort of place a lot of people are ever going to want to visit, I suspect. But that's OK. We can't be all things to all people, after all. If the Wilderness Act is the only way an industrialized culture can express its respect and humility before something larger than itself, so be it, we'll work within it.

If you want to know more, check out www.owyheecanyonlands.org.

Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org


Friday, 28-Dec-2001 09:19:26 MST