Owyhee Travel Plans veer off track

The Owyhee Canyonlands, also known as “The Big Quiet,” embody some of the most remote and pristine backcountry places in Idaho. As a result of the Owyhee Initiative’s groundbreaking collaborative process, Congress passed the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Act which protected 517,000 acres of Wilderness and 316 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers along with key access routes to these spectacular places.

Another, quieter success was the Congressional directive for the BLM to create travel management plans for the surrounding areas. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of surrounding backcountry areas that provide important habitat for Greater sage-grouse and serve as corridors for big game. This spectacular landscape is prized by hunters, bird watchers, quiet recreationists, and responsible OHV users. 

For decades, user-created and redundant routes have proliferated across this landscape, with many routes posing risks to water quality, vegetation, and wildlife. The lack of travel management plans across much of Owyhee County has caused frustration for people who care about this landscape. 

ICL was initially pleased to hear that the BLM was starting the long-delayed and long-overdue travel management planning process, and was hopeful that the BLM would select an appropriate balance between conservation and recreation by designating a trail system that is protective of wildlife and minimizes conflicts between Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) use and other recreational uses. 

The Hemingway Butte Play Area OHV Park is open to cross-country vehicle use. The high route density there makes the area less suitable for native vegetation, wildlife and other recreationists. For the other travel plans, motorized recreationists are supposed to stay on designated trails.

However, the BLM recently selected the “maximum motorized alternative” for the entirety of the 663,000-acre Canyonlands East Travel Planning Area and the 677,000-acre Canyonlands West Travel Planning Area, authorizing the vast majority of trails that have been pioneered across the landscape, including those within priority habitat for sage-grouse. This ecosystem is already in danger of unraveling from combined threats of invasive grasses, wildfires, and fragmentation. The maximum motorized alternatives unnecessarily exacerbate all these stressors, particularly given the known association between road densities, cheatgrass invasion, and human-caused wildfires (over 80% of wildfires are human-caused). 

The BLM’s decisions failed to adopt ICL’s request to convert some of the suitable trails into single track, non-motorized or mechanized uses.

For Canyonlands East, the BLM designated 1,103 miles of routes as motorized and just 1 mile as a non-motorized trail. For Canyonlands West, the BLM designated 1,012 miles of routes as motorized and 4 miles as non-motorized trails. 

Now that these routes have the BLM’s official blessing, we are concerned that the use will only increase and these areas will turn into new motorized recreation destinations like the trailheads along the Owyhee Front. The BLM has yet to get a handle on recreation at these established recreational areas and we are concerned that BLM’s education and enforcement ability at these more remote locations is even more limited.  

In the same decision, the BLM had closed at least one key river access point that had been guaranteed through the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009. Under these decisions, the BLM was supposed to provide motorized access to key river put-ins and take outs of Wild and Scenic Rivers, such as the East Fork Owyhee at Garat. The BLM’s wilderness boundary at Garat was originally drawn to allow vehicles to drive down to a terrace next to the river to turn around. The latest decision had closed the boundary road to motorized vehicles on the bench farther above.

ICL worked with the Owyhee Initiative, Owyhee County Commissioners, Barker River Expeditions and Wilderness River Outfitters, and the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association to bring this to the BLM’s attention. We are pleased to report that the BLM recognized this error and will be refining these maps consistent with the Owyhee Initiative agreement so that floaters will be able to enjoy the amazing East Fork Owyhee River next year.

Next steps: Free for All or a “Free-for-all”?

The BLM is moving forward with three other important travel planning decisions in Owyhee County: Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area South, Silver City, and Grand View.

The few miles of problematic routes that the BLM did close and the fewer miles set aside for non-motorized recreation were in part because ICL and our members spoke up for them. 

If you want the BLM to strike a more appropriate balance for the three remaining travel plans, they need to hear from you. 

To save our quiet trails and places for wildlife, we have to speak up for them.

Please sign up here to be alerted when these next travel plans come out and speak up for your favorite hiking trails and wildlife areas.


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