by Samantha White
Due to scheduling conflicts, the Harney County Court held its meeting on Thursday, Aug. 21.
During the meeting, the court discussed a letter that it received from Brent Fenty, executive director of Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), regarding the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT).
On Nov. 15, 2013, ONDA, in coordination with several conservation organizations, submitted a formal request to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to establish an 800-mile trail system across multiple counties in Central and Eastern Oregon. Spanning from the Oregon Badlands Wilderness in Central Oregon to Lake Owyhee State Park near the Oregon/Idaho border, the ODT crosses portions of Deschutes, Harney, Lake and Malheur counties.
On Jan. 8, 2014, representatives from all four affected counties wrote a letter to Fenty, BLM State Director Jerry Perez, and USFWS Pacific Region Director Robyn Thorson expressing concerns about the ODT proposal and requesting that ONDA convene public forums in Bend, Burns, Lakeview and Vale.
Fenty attended a Community Response Team meeting (held April 2 in Burns) to introduce Harney County residents to a proposal to designate the ODT as a National Recreation Trail.
After the presentation, some members of the public expressed concerns. Examples of these concerns included ONDA’s history of environmental litigation, how the trail designation might impact motorized-vehicle access, whether signs would be posted along the trail, the potential impact on rural search and rescue operations, the economic impact on nearby communities, and whether trail designation is truly necessary.
Fenty responded to some of these concerns in a letter dated Aug. 15.
During the Aug. 21 court meeting, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty requested that the county commissioners review the letter and consider how to respond to it.
If we simply accept this [letter], it may appear that we’re agreeing, and I don’t,” Grasty said. “I think they have missed some of the big issues that we asked about, and there may be some other points that we want to make in this.”
Harney County Commissioner Dan Nichols said, “There is just nothing good — nothing good about this at all. It’s a ploy, and it’s a very well-conceived chess move.”
Nichols said he believed the trail designation would build a foundation for future regulation.
In his letter, Fenty addressed concerns regarding the development of land-use restrictions along the trail route by stating, “ONDA continues to work separately on conservation efforts, such as wilderness [designations] across Oregon’s high desert; however, the ODT proposal, and the associated National Recreation Trail concept, was not intended to be a change in land use designations along the route, and we welcome county and other stakeholder input on state designations or other management approaches that would be most appropriate for a trail of this type.”
Fenty went on to discuss the possibility of seeking an “Oregon Scenic Trail” or “Oregon Regional Trail” designation through the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, noting that a state designation may be a way to “highlight trails, as opposed to creating new regulatory criteria.”
However, Grasty said “We don’t support federal or state trail designation.”
Grasty added that he thinks ONDA should complete the full National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process at its own expense, adding that the organization may also need to obtain multiple land use permits. Grasty also stated that the trail is rarely used, and he questioned the necessity of the designation.
The court will attempt to meet with the other affected counties to formulate a joint response to the letter.
The proposed land exchange between the Oregon Department of State Lands (DSL) and Tree Top Ranches (located southeast of Crane) was also a topic of discussion during the meeting.
A public hearing will be held Tuesday, Sept. 30, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., at the Harney County Community Center, 484 N. Broadway in Burns.
The hearing will provide an opportunity for DSL to inform the public about the proposed exchange and respond to concerns that were raised during the public comment period earlier this year.
“I’m pretty pleased they are going to have a public hearing,” Grasty said, acknowledging that the issue has raised controversy.
Grasty added that Tree Top Ranches is offering a tour of the land that would be affected by the proposed exchange, and he encouraged anyone who is concerned about the proposal to take the tour.
For more information regarding the proposed land exchange, visit: www.oregon.gov/dsl/LW/Pages/Tree-Top-Exchange.aspx.
In other business, the court:
• was informed by Harney County Commissioner Pete Runnels that efforts to manage the wild horse population are ongoing.
Runnels said a wild horse sanctuary has been proposed, but he doesn’t know whether the idea will move forward;
• learned from Grasty that the BLM provided funding for a project to convert Harney County’s mining claim documents into a searchable database for mineral investigations and land use planning;
• discussed sage grouse. Grasty said the USFWS is accepting input concerning whether it should list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
He said, up until this point, he’d been focusing on the BLM’s Resource Management Plan Amendment/Draft Environmental Impact Statement (RMPA/DEIS) and the state’s Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership (SageCon).
However, he is now looking to put together a meeting of local interest groups to determine how to respond, when to respond, and who should respond to the listing decision. Grasty added that he will try to engage other counties in this effort, as well;
• resumed its conversation concerning a map of roads within Harney County. Grasty said he had not received any additional comments since the previous meeting. He added that he plans to schedule an hour or two to “work through what we’ve heard and figure out where we’re going;”
• approved Resolution 2014-11 in the matter of confirming and declaring the Housing Authority of Malheur County to be the Regional Housing Authority for Malheur and Harney Counties, as the Housing Authority of Malheur County has operated as a regional housing authority for both Malheur and Harney counties since approximately 1977.
Runnels reported that Malheur County has already signed the joint resolution;
• appointed Leon Neuschwander, and re-appointed Wayne Evans, to the Harney County Planning Commission;
• received a copy of a letter that Ruth Danielsen wrote to the BLM concerning the denial of the application for grazing permit renewal for Hammond Ranches Inc.;
• learned from Nichols that the new landfill pit in Diamond has been dug.
He said, “DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] was very helpful in that process.”
The next regularly-scheduled meeting of the county court will be held Wednesday, Sept. 3, at 10 a.m. in Judge Grasty’s office at the courthouse.