Subscriptions click here for 20% off! E-Mail:

Git Home!


Aloha + Shazam = Owyhee


Odd place, the Owyhee. It runs rugged and wild across sharp rising mountains and deeply dipping green valleys in southwest Idaho into a corner of Oregon and a nip of Nevada. Shoshone-Paiute country, still mostly untamed beyond choice roadside glens like Jordan Valley, Ore., it seems open to roaming, almost forgotten. You would think in such a muse that Owyhee derives its name from a Native American word chiming with

Tim Findley photo
The “raw beauty” of the Lowry range, “just far enough apart from everybody else to make them feel neighborly.”

some romantic explanation. But the name comes from the Pacific Islanders brought there by French trappers and sent out to find pelts in a place unlike anywhere common in the South Pacific. The Islanders were never seen again. Just the name of their home sticks, Owyhee— “Hawaii” the way the French heard it.

What else is odd these days about Owyhee is how badly radical environmentalists and cow-crazed Sun

Valley rich man Jon Marvel want to see ranchers forced out of business in the entire region. “Welfare queens,” Marvel calls ranchers, curling his lip and vowing to “take away their subsidy.” Marvel and his crowd from RangeNet 2000 are on a crusade to end all grazing on public lands (see Range, Spring ’01), but for years the resort architect has concentrated his personal venom, as well as some of his inherited wealth, on Owyhee in particular. Perhaps all that has really stopped him is the oddly determined unity of the oldest cattlemen’s association in Idaho (first organized in 1878) and now referred to among federal authorities as the “Owyhee renegades.”

With the help of a federal Clinton-appointed judge who blatantly admits his own bias against ranchers, 68 separate permit holdings on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allotments in this region have been challenged and threatened with just about as many individual claims against their existence over the last decade. From overgrazing to endangered species to cowpies on a stream bed, Marvel has gone at it in so many different ways and with such relentless, pestering attention that even the BLM issued an official directive instructing employees not to talk to him at all any more, except by letter.

But if they’re not talking to Marvel any more, BLM authorities in the Owyhee must still be listening to somebody for advice on the contorted and sometimes absurd ways they have found to force cattle off the range under terms of their own Resource Management Plan (RMP). Like other plans invented in the Babbitt administration, it aims to control water resources, restrict AUMs (Animal Units Monthly) and shorten grazing seasons.

Even BLM Management Specialist Bill Reimers acknowledges that implementing the plan will “make it difficult for a number of them [the ranchers] to stay in business.” Reimers, sounding sympathetic, claims he is “only carrying out the laws.”

Just as elsewhere in the West, the dire economic objectives of the plan first hinted at a decade ago were recognized by Owyhee County authorities who authorized their own resource commission and stood ready for the battle - in and out of court if necessary. But it would come about in strange little skirmishes that even today leave open the question of who is writing the “laws.”

Take the minor monument of the cattle guard we call “Hillary” that rests in slightly fading, but still bright-yellow painted iron far up on a barely tracked road across the so-called Cliffs allotment. It was actually Colorado Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder who once suggested in jest so many “cattle guards” in the West ought to be retrained for better employment, but Hillary cheered her on, and there’s something about the Cliffs’ cattle guard that deserves more regal status.

For one thing, it is probably the loneliest cattle guard in the West. Not so much because there are no cattle there now, but because there is no fence on either side of it that would make it necessary at all.

Tim Lowry and two other permit holders on the Cliffs put it there with the help of an astonishing community effort that erected the remote three-mile fence in less than four days. “[Fellow Cliffs permittee] Jeannie Stanford remembers getting a call the next morning from [former BLM manager John] Fend telling her they wouldn’t give us any more time,” recalled Lowry. “‘S’okay, John,’ she said. ‘The fence is done.’ There was just this long silence. ‘What about the cattle guard?’ he said finally. ‘Yep, John. Cattle guard too.’”

That obviously wasn’t what the BLM expected when they first began dragging their feet in 1991 over the offer of the permit holders to divide the allotment into three separate pastures, allowing at least one to be rested for a season. It was a good idea and a pro-environmental concept, but not part of the BLM management plan, and the

Tim Lowry, left, and his father, Bill. The place they live is just about perfect, or would be if it weren’t for Jon Marvel and the Idaho Watershed Project’s “tiresome and expensive game” of trying to force ranchers out of existence. Marvel doesn’t belong in the raw beauty of this country any more than did those Hawaiians.
bureaucrats kept finding reasons all that summer to delay their approval. Until finally, with the season ending, the ranchers were given an impossible four days to build the fence, all at their own expense. Fend obviously never expected it could be done, but not for the first or last time, he had underestimated Lowry and his neighbors in the Owyhee’s Pleasant Valley.

Even so, the fence and the resting pasture were never used. Before the next season began, the BLM was presented with a court order inspired by Marvel and friends to remove it. The BLM just never got around to taking out the cattle guard.

Reimers today contends that

his predecessor had failed to follow procedure in notifying all the “interested parties” about the fence, thus blundering into the court order.

And that is what is most infuriating of all about the battles of the Owyhee these days. Despite the lengths to which ranchers on their own have tried to initiate better management that might anticipate the extremes Marvel and his Idaho Watersheds Project (IWP) will find for eliminating them, there inevitably follows a re-encounter with new BLM policies bound to mismanage the ranchers out of business anyway.

“The court’s decision never states that its imposition of the interim measures was based on evidence of environmental damage submitted by IWP,” wrote Federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill this year in one of his remarkably contorted excuses for refusing even to grant the ranchers a hearing on Marvel’s latest attempt to block renewal of all 68 grazing permits in the Owyhee. “Instead, the interim measures were employed solely because they offered a BLM-approved, less drastic alternative to the complete prohibition of all grazing.”

The “interim measures,” some of them written on the spot, amount to the same ranch-killing management plan that Owyhee has been fighting for the last 10 years. Judge Winmill refused even to examine evidence from ranchers revealing its environmental flaws.

In other words, forget due process in the Owyhee. Just be happy for now that the BLM doesn’t much like Jon Marvel either. Judge Winmill, a busy man about town in Boise, makes no pretenses of having spent so much as an afternoon drive in examining the actual environmental condition of the region. Instead, Winmill’s decisions have dodged the wrath - or reward - of Marvel’s hyper-demands by giving the BLM unbridled, and unchallenged, authority to accomplish Marvel’s aims on their own bureaucratic schedule.

The ranchers have watched in part with amazement since, as the BLM raced with helicopter “surveys” and short-science stream visits to justify their measures, while the ranchers’ own science on the subject is entrusted to lawyers who so far can’t get the court to even look at it.

For a hard-leather man with a longhorn handlebar mustache like Tim Lowry, it’s a tiresome and expensive game run by people who don’t belong in the raw beauty of his country any more than did those Hawaiians. Since the 1970s he has run his own ranch alongside the LU spread of his father, Bill Lowry, in the secluded meadows of Pleasant Valley, Ida., just across the Oregon line. Seventeen kids, grades one through eight, go to the local school, and most of them never leave a dirt road to get there. It’s where Bill and Tim and their combined families always hoped they could live someday, just far enough apart from everybody else to make them feel neighborly.

Even the year of drought supposedly parching western Oregon this year seemed to leave Pleasant Valley blissfully apart. In mid-August when Senator Larry Craig came out to talk to ranchers at the schoolhouse, the valley fields were still an eye-aching green, knee deep in grass where a group of bucks big enough to be

mistaken for elk leisurely filled their stomachs. If you didn’t mind having nowhere else to go in that kind of year, Pleasant Valley, in fact, was just about perfect.

Twenty miles east, climbing into the flat buttes of the mountain range is the Cliffs allotment used by the Lowrys, the Stanfords and the Hendersons for summer grazing. All three families are regarded by Idaho cattle authorities as among the state’s most environmentally conscious ranchers. That was, in fact, the idea behind the fence at the beginning of the decade. But although it’s still a good idea, the fence up there is no longer the main issue. Now, amid the steadily more rampant growth of juniper ignored by the BLM, it is supposedly overgrazing in a “dry” year that has brought out new restrictions. It’s straight out of the RMP Reimers claims is bound by law to protect riparian areas. And, with a Marvel comic twist, it is backed by the “interim order” from Judge Winmill restricting summer grazing from the normal three or four

Useless, unnecessary “Hillary,” alone and fading, may be the loneliest cattle guard in the West, but it’s a symbol of neighbors standing together to build the fence the BLM required on four days notice. Later and because of a court order due to pressure from environmentalists, it was torn down.
months to 30 days, June 15 to July 15. It also demands that cattle not be near stream riparian areas unless the summer grass is at least four inches tall. Incredibly, much of it is, but the BLM evidently doesn’t seem to know it.

“What they want is just to make it a bad year for us,” said Lowry, measuring his own large palm against the August growth along the stream. “They know we can’t just put cattle out for a month and bring them right back in this country. They know it’s just one more try to run us out of business.” By measures Judge Winmill called “less drastic” than what Marvel wants.

Across the stretch of highway leading toward Boise, another full 50 miles from the Cliffs, Richard and Connie Brandau have their own problems with the BLM and “Marvel” science made to fit. In the steep, dry canyons

Radical environmentalists want the Owyhee ranchers out of business, although they’re regarded as among Idaho’s most environmentally conscious, providing good knee-deep browse for these healthy bucks.
leading up to their allotment you might find anything from forgotten petroglyphs to lost generations of hippies still hoping communes can work. The Brandau family has run cattle in the area for nearly 100 years.

Today, where the BLM says their Hardtrigger allotment is overgrazed is the grubbed-down evidence of a now familiar problem and excuse in the West - too many wild horses. The Brandaus, denied by the BLM in their request to fence off part of the horse herd, have seen their own AUMs reduced to favor the horses. Now, thanks to the “interim”

measures vaguely demanding a six-inch stubble at the end of the grazing season, they, like others in the Owyhee, are concerned that they won’t be granted enough productive time to graze what is left.

Among friends, gathered around a hitching post with the friendly Brandau dogs running under foot, the “renegades” swap familiar stories among themselves, occasionally punctuated by Connie’s more

Connie Brandau (LEFT) and husband Richard (ABOVE) ranch where the Brandau family has run cattle for nearly 100 years. Now they’re among the “Owyhee renegades.”
direct attitude toward the BLM’s attempt to “ram” the new guidelines “down our throats.” Never more than mild in her expletives, Connie can still deliver them with enough volume to dent concrete, and often does.

A series of BLM managers in the Owyhees have heard from her and others in the long process of adding new restrictions supposedly, but seldom, based on consultation with the ranchers themselves.

Nobody doubts that Connie is correct, and if they haven’t quite had the nerve to say so themselves, it is in part because the organization of 68 permittees has learned how to designate tasks in their joint battle against Marvel and the BLM.

Privately, the bureaucrats call them “Owyhee renegades.” The truth in this part of Idaho, however, is that virtually all elected authorities from the sheriff up to their U.S. senator regard the actions of the BLM in the Owyhee districts as a relentless exertion of arbitrary power and even outright collusion with the ranchers’ environmentalist opponents.

That was a conclusion Sheriff Gary Aman came to a couple of years ago when one of his deputies stopped a

The BLM erected this grass-protecting cage to demonstrate the ravages of grazing cattle on Ted and Dorothy Payne’s Ranch at Cliffs Stage. Left: Grass after the cows had grazed and gone. Right: The same area after a herd of antelope passed through. The BLM tried to blame the cows. The antelope ate off one of only two grasses the BLM counts on the green line - blue-green sedge. Other grasses, whatever their height, don’t count because of their inferior root systems. Note: The cage was placed directly across from a cow trail. These creek banks have not washed any deeper in 20 years of grazing.

BLM van for speeding through the town of Bruneau. The van was driven by a BLM range manager. Her passengers identified themselves as being from Marvel’s Idaho Watersheds Project. They were out “looking at properties,” the deputy was told.

Ask Connie Brandau her opinion of the IWP and their leader if you dare someday, but be prepared to calm the horses.

Her husband, Richard, seems an inordinately patient and caring man, a little hard of hearing maybe. But then everybody’s anger in the Owyhee seems a little

more subdued in Connie’s let- ’em- have-it presence. Like her, they’ve had it with the relentless legal costs piling up to over half a million dollars to defend themselves, the continuous reduction of their water rights on allotments, and the blank refusal of the federal court even to examine their side. They’re angry. They just can’t shout like Connie Brandau, and usually when she’s there, they don’t have to.

Instead, they have grudgingly followed the advice of leaders like Senator Craig, who counsels patience with the new federal administration, and with the reassurances of county leaders that they will stand behind the ranchers in the event there are any attempts to confiscate cattle or cut off road access. Both of which are part of a Marvel fantasy.

“We’re going to protect rights and justice for everybody,” said Sheriff Aman. “But I’d have to say that right now it’s the ranchers who seem to face the most injustice.”

It’s like coming to High Noon in the Owyhee, where Marvel seems to think he can make a laboratory case out of driving the ranchers out of business - “making this his sandbox,” as Connie Brandau puts it. And where the“renegade” canard they have begun to accept with pride stands for their determination against a clumsy but still powerful BLM.

“Once in a while we’ve had some friendly talks,” says BLM’s Bill Reimers. “I tell them I appreciate their job, and they tell me nobody wants mine.”

The BLM doesn’t seem to notice that the grass is the requisite four inches tall. “What they want is just to make it a bad year for us,” says rancher Tim Lowry.

Tim Findley is an investigative reporter who lives in Fallon, Nev. He has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle and Rolling Stone. He used to be considered an urban bleeding heart liberal; now he’s accused of being a “right-wing redneck” and other things he’s never even thought about. “That,” Findley says, “is what writing for Range has done to my reputation.”

Winter 2002 Contents | Git Home!

To Subscribe: Please click here or call 1-800-RANGE-4-U for a special web price

Copyright © 1998-2005 RANGE magazine

For problems or questions regarding this site, please contact Dolphin Enterprises.

last page update: 04.03.05