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Mike Stevens Interview

Mike StevensMike Stevens is with Lava Lake Land and Livestock, a sheep operation based in Hailey. Lava Lake was formed in 1999 and operates on about 900,000 acres of private, state, and federal land in the Craters of the Moon and Boulder Mountains just east and north of Sun Valley. Bruce Reichert conducted this interview in the summer of 2012.

You really experience the Sawtooth NRA differently from those of us who come here to fish or hike.
We knew from the get-go as the founders of Lava Lake were putting together the 5 historic ranches that comprise Lava Lake, that part of the appeal for them of running this operation was the very fact that there was a very close and almost essential relationship between the sheep operation, the public lands, and the potential to achieve a lot of conservation; if we could manage our sheep grazing well, we would have a positive impact on a much larger landscape than just our 24,000 acres of private land.

Our sheep travel about 125 miles each year from south to north, and the SNRA provides one of our areas that we go to during the months of June, July, August and September. So it's a vital part of the operating area for us, as it is for other sheep producers in the range.

"I think the opportunity, the goal with the National Recreation area, and the goal of reflecting Idaho values is that we could potentially have a richer story than many national parks have."I think the thing that we see about the SNRA is it really brings the issue of multiple use to a head, in that we are grazing large bands of sheep — often more than a thousand animals in each band — in an area that is just a few miles from Ketchum and Sun Valley; so there is a lot of intense recreational use. There is a very active environmental community in the valley that takes a deep interest in what is going on in literally their back yard. And it is also a place that has a long history of sheep grazing, and we have tried to balance our ability to graze and fatten up our lambs and grow a marketable product on public lands with our conservation mission, which has been to try to restore and improve the conditions of the land — both on the private lands that we own as well as on the public lands where we have permits to graze like the SNRA.

What are some of the issues you've dealt with on the Sawtooth NRA?
I think the biggest issues that we have dealt with on the SNRA, in addition to managing the relationship with the recreational community, have been related to grazing management, just more broadly, and wolf management. So we went through an allotment review process on this allotment, the North Fork Boulder allotment in 2005,2005, and 2006.

And really the outcome of that process was that we volunteered to withdraw certain portions of our allotment out of grazing — mainly the high elevation basins where people want to go and hike. We felt that there was not a whole lot of forage in those areas for the sheep, and we really hadn't been using them very much anyway. It just made a lot of sense to just say that's going to be off-limits. But a lot of the rest of the allotment continues to be very productive ground for us.

Wolf [Credit: Ray Mullenax]The second big issue that we dealt with was wolf management. And the Phantom Hill wolf pack which has received a lot of attention over the years, set up shop right in the middle of our grazing area on the North Fork Boulder allotment in 2007.

And we had been working very closely with state and federal agencies, with Defenders of Wildlife, in developing proactive nonlethal tools to minimize or eliminate losses of sheep to wolves; and we had formalized that effort through the Wood River Wolf Project which was really focused on the SNRA west and north of Ketchum and particularly on the North Fork Boulder allotment. And over the following 3 years in 2009, 2010 and 2011, we were able to graze literally tens of thousands of sheep through the valley with no wolves being lethally controlled as a result of sheep depredations. So that was an enormous success.

What signal did your success with sheep and wolves send to folks?
That really sent a signal to the community in this area here that the sheep ranchers grazing on the SNRA and this portion of the SNRA are really committed to trying to develop a form of co-existence at some level, to try to create some sort of a balance. And I think, ultimately, that's really what the SNRA strives to do, and what makes it different from a national park, which is seeking that elusive balance amongst all these various uses.

I think the example of retiring some of the portions of the allotment from grazing is an example where multiple use doesn't mean you try to do everything in the same place. It means you try to figure out what is the optimum use for a particular portion of the landscape, or what is the optimum balance of uses. And that means at times we need to pull back on our use, and other times other members of the community might see some sort of balance that they need to accommodate in their particular use.

What if this had been a national park?
I've spent a lot of time in national parks. My first job in college was with the National Park service as a ranger in Yosemite, and I think I told 800,000 people where to go to the bathroom in one month in the Visitor's Center at Yosemite National park. But I love wilderness, I love being out in national parks. I think the opportunity, the goal with the National Recreation area and the goal of reflecting Idaho values is that we could potentially have a richer story than many national parks have.

Herd of Bighorn sheep on a backcountry roadI'll give you a very specific example. Some of the lambs that we are raising, at least partially here on the SNRA, are sent to market and then Lava Lake runs its own grass-fed seasonal and year round lamb program. So restaurants seven or eight miles away from us in Sun Valley, Ketchum and Hailey are selling our lamb on their menus; and I think it's really an opportunity for us to figure out, okay, how do we raise lamb that people can eat locally that is raised out in a place that in most areas looks and feels like a wilderness, and can we balance those uses? And the balancing act is never clean; you are never done; it is rarely easy; but that is the struggle that I think we face across this country and around the world in terms of balancing human use and natural areas.

I think we're positioned here. If we can't do it here I don't know where we can do it. We've had visitors from Mongolia and Argentina who work on grazing issues, and we're the envy of the world in terms of our system of land management, of the relationship between people and nature. I think it is really important for us to experiment with these approaches and find that balance and struggle to maintain that balance.