By SEAN ELLIS
Idaho's cattle and sheep ranchers have turned to the Internet to try to educate urban residents about how the industry is providing food, taking care of the environment and helping the economy all at the same time.
In its second year of existence, LifeOnTheRange.org features stories about ranchers throughout the state.
"It's about real people doing real things and positive things you don't typically see in the media," says Gretchen Hyde, executive director of the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission, which created the web site.
The target audience is urban residents, who usually obtain their limited knowledge of ranching from negative stories they hear in the media, Hyde says.
If someone does a Google search for public lands grazing, "they get nothing but negative information," Hyde says.
"We're trying to counter that ... with real people and not just somebody's opinion," she says. "We're exposing people to what's really happening. They're seeing faces and understanding the complexities of these issues."
The site includes in-depth stories and videos about ranches, including conservation and water improvement projects they undertake "that benefit beyond just their own pocketbooks," Hyde says.
For example, the site includes a piece about how the Olsen Ranch in north Idaho benefits wildlife. The ranch, located near the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, provides habitat and food for a lot of animals, including deer, elk, moose, bear and birds.
It explains how ranch owner Merle Olsen developed a watering system for his cattle that also provides grazing areas for thousands of Canada geese.
"We feel it's really important that people get the rest of the story," Hyde says. "It's an opportunity to cover issues important to the industry in-depth. Sound bites don't work well on these issues because they're really complicated."
She says many teachers in Idaho use the site in their classrooms. "It's like a virtual field trip for a lot of them."
The IRRC is a state agency with a $198,000 budget that is funded by the state's ranchers, who pay a small assessment on their cattle.
With limited dollars -- the assessment hasn't been increased since it was created in 1997 -- the commission felt creating a web page was the best and most economical way to reach people, says past IRRC Chairman John Noh, a southern Idaho sheep rancher who was instrumental in getting the web site started.
"Everybody's on the Internet and that's where they go to get most of their information, whether it's good or bad," he says. "It was the vehicle by which we thought we could reach the largest number of people, especially urban people."
Noh said board members asked themselves, "How do we promote the industry and show the good things ranchers are doing for Idaho's rangeland?"
"We're not saying everything is roses out there on the public lands," he adds. "But for the most part, ranchers are doing a good job and that's what the commission is trying to showcase."