The Wild and Scenic Bruneau River

The hike down the Robison Trail to the Bruneau River above Five Mile Rapids is interesting and arduous. (Photo by Greg Stahl)

By Greg Stahl, IRU

We were standing on the bank of the Bruneau River, having just descended the Robison Trail, a narrow path that switches back and forth 700 feet down a near-vertical canyon wall. The river was chocolate brown, rising but not too high. In fact, at 700 cubic feet per second, it was only beginning to come into its floatable window.

After donning dry suits, pfds and helmets, we released ourselves to the current and watched as vertical rhyolite and basalt canyon walls closed in. Then the river dropped into a succession of steep, continuous rapids, collectively called Five Mile. Raptors floated on thermals above, and Canada geese honked from riverside grasses. The canyon felt, and is, wild. Though the nearest roads are near the top of the canyon rim, they are 1,000 vertical feet and a world away from the Bruneau River.

Our Easter Sunday float was a fitting way, we agreed, to commemorate one of the United States’ newly christened Wild & Scenic Rivers. On March 30, roughly two weeks before, President Barack Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, a package of 160 bills that included Wild & Scenic and wilderness protections for meandering miles of rivers and vast sweeps of public land throughout the United States. Included in that package was the Owyhee Initiative bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

The Owyhee Initiative was crafted through a careful collaborative process over the course of eight years, and its passage means designation of 316 miles of federally protected Wild & Scenic Rivers—including the Bruneau. It also means designation of 517,000 acres of wilderness, protection of tribal cultural resources and measures designed to promote economic stability and protect the way of life enjoyed by Owyhee County ranchers. Idaho Rivers United was a key party to the negotiations that led to this collaborative success story.

Negotiated compromise legislation such as the Owyhee Initiative got the notice of the Western Governors’ Association in June 2006. The nonprofit, whose board of directors consists of the governors of the Western states, compiled a white paper on the topic titled “Collaborative Conservation Strategies: Legislative Case Studies from Across the West.”

The paper reads, in part, “There are those on both sides who believe compromising with ‘the enemy’ on conservation and development is tantamount to surrender. However, as the West keeps growing, the pressure will mount to negotiate solutions on the conservation and development of land and water supplies for traditional and new uses. Negotiated, omnibus legislation for public lands is one of the new tools that can help. This approach requires undaunted leadership, (a strong motivating factor to get the parties to the table), a level playing field during the collaborative process, and an outcome that has enough support to weather the federal legislative process.”

At 700 cfs, the Bruneau is not easily navigable by rafts and required numerous technical maneuvers around, behind and over rocks in a kayak. But exciting whitewater wasn’t the reason we traveled there. It was to experience the wild and scenic character of this Wild & Scenic place.

As novelist Norman McLean writes, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” In this case, a river runs through one of the United States’ new collaborative success stories, a conservation bill that was written through grassroots efforts to protect a truly stunning and isolated portion of the American West.

Idahoans should be proud.

  • There are a number of outings to the wild country of southwest Idaho scheduled this spring to celebrate passage of the Owyhee Initiative. A full list is available at theOwyhee Initiative Web site, but contact Jeff at Idaho Rivers United at (208) 343-7481 or jeff@idahorivers.org to sign up for a May 16 photography trip to the Bruneau Canyon Overlook or one of two trips to see sage grouse mating activity on either April 25 or April 26.
  • Click here to link to a video from IRU Executive Director Bill Sedivy from the banks of the Bruneau River, as well as IRU’s press release, fact sheet and background summary on the Owyhee Initiative.