Commissioners don’t feel ONDA is listening to the community

By Jennifer Jenks
Burns Times-Herald

A challenge has been issued to representatives and board members of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and the Audubon Society to drop the lawsuit against Secretary of State Ken Salazar and the Bureau of Land Management protesting the Record of Decision issued by Salazar regarding the Steens wind project and come talk to the Harney County community.

Harney County Judge Steve Grasty announced the challenge at last Wednesday’s meeting of the Harney County Court, adding, “We need to figure out the right strategy with the folks creating this and those directly impacted by it — landowners, the developer, the county.” They also need to come up with additional plans, depending on whether this strategy works or not, he said. Grasty spoke with representatives from both groups already to ask them if they had talked to anyone in the community and was told they had talked to the developer. “That’s not the community,” he said. “They just don’t get it.”

Commissioner Dan Nichols stated, from conversations he had with the groups, he felt that although to some degree they understand they are harming this community, they don’t understand the full impact. “They’re idealists and want to look 200 years in the future, and that doesn’t work,” he said. “People here have been using and working on the Steens for a hundred years, and it’s still beautiful. How do you talk to a brick wall?”

Commissioner Pete Runnels offered to talk to ONDA’s board, but Grasty said he had already tried that, and not only did hardly any of the board show up, but one of the members walked out in the middle of the meeting.

Frustration continued throughout the discussion, with Nichols expressing dismay at the inequality of the judicial process when it came to lawsuits by environmental groups and Grasty acknowledging he had received a call from a Steens landowner who is so sick of all of this, he wants to start selling off his property. Those landowners need some money coming in, he said, and this would have provided that. “One of the worst things we can do environmentally is start selling off blocks of land up there,” he stated emphatically, “and ONDA and Audubon are pushing landowners to this now.”

Vice President of Project Development and Construction Marl Kane with Columbia Energy Partners stopped by at the court’s invitation to explain that the transmission line that crosses a small part of the CMPA does not cross one inch of public land within the CMPA. Grasty noted the lawsuit makes the statement that the line cuts the CMPA in half, which, he said, was technically true, but that it does not violate the CMPA at all.

The court agreed that Grasty should push aggressively for a meeting with the groups and try to get them to drop the lawsuit so they can have a “real conversation.”

“Other environmental groups working with the CCP have come together to make things work,” Nichols said, “and some of them have called ONDA and told them, ‘Hey, back off, you’re making us all look bad.’ “

The process has been started to map all the roads the county recognizes in an attempt to get ahead of conservationists trying to lock up 5,000-acre blocks that don’t have any roads by designating them wilderness areas. The goal of the project is not to declare these as county roads, Judge Grasty said, but merely to recognize all roads, access or otherwise, on public and private land.

Grasty said he thought the court should set a standard on where roadless areas start if they find one as it makes a dramatic difference depending on whether they start the boundaries in the middle of an outlying road or at the edge of the right of way.

The court decided to recruit help with the project by contacting other groups, such as the snowmobile club, to help hold meetings in outlying areas so residents can help with the mapping process.

There was some discussion and explanation of a right of way transfer from The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) the county considered accepting. The right of way in question is off Highway 20 near the western limit of Hines. The right of way became an issue after a situation in which an ambulance on an emergency call had a hard time finding the access road and getting to a residence. There was a question as to why the road wasn’t named, and it was discovered that it had been built so ODOT could access a gravel pit, which can no longer be located. In order for the City of Hines to accept it as a road, they would have to maintain it at a huge cost to the city, and they decided against it.

Judge Grasty explained that the county can recognize it, not as a road, but as an access point, and won’t be required to maintain it at all. He said the landowners who live off the access point are in agreement with the decision. “My goal is simply to make sure there’s a sign on the road, and there’s no other maintenance costs,” he stated.

Herb Vloedman, in attendance, expressed concern that the road would not be maintained, noting that there was a lot of rutting on the road, and it would need to be bladed off in winter in order for the ambulance to use it. “That will be the next issue,” he said.

The resolution to accept the right of way passed unanimously.

In other business:

• Harney County Planning Director Brandon McMullen reported both cities had signed the 2012 Silvies Watershed Risk MAP Partnership Agreement with FEMA. There was some discussion, and concerns were once again expressed, but in the end the court unanimously agreed to sign the agreement;

• Weed Control Coordinator Jesse Barnes discussed the Certification of Inspection fee schedule. Judge Grasty asked about liability if something was certified weed-free, to which Barnes explained it would be certified as “weed-inspected” not weed-free, and would be used for educational purposes. The fee schedule was somewhat instigated by the Bureau of Land Management, Barnes explained, so they could obtain certified material. She said Harney County is the first in the state to do this, and a standardized process was being worked on in case other counties wanted to get involved;

• Judge Grasty expressed support for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, noting that it was the Corps of Engineers that wanted the Tern Island project done, and the refuge had no choice in the matter;

• Resolution #2012-05 in the Matter of a Wildlife Mitigation Plan that was approved at the last court meeting passed unanimously;

• the court appointed two producers, Bill Wilber and Ken Bentz Jr., two wolf advocates, Suzanne Settle and Herbert Gray, and Commissioner Nichols to the Wolf Plan Committee. The committee will meet next to select two business members for inclusion;

• Commissioner Nichols noted the Early Learning Council would be meeting in Harney County in May. He noted Harney County has a great model, which makes him wonder why no one east of the Cascades was appointed to the Early Learning Council;

• it was noted that ONDA was pushing for the certification of old growth groves of juniper. Dr. Tony Svejcar with the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service and others have identified areas of juniper that were in Harney County pre-settlement, and their study was backed by science. Judge Grasty urged the court to be proactive, name the old growth stands themselves and make sure those areas are protected.

The next Harney County Court meeting will be held Wednesday, May 2, at 10 a.m. in Judge Grasty’s office at the Harney County Courthouse, 420 N. Buena Vista Ave. in Burns. An additional work session was scheduled for Tuesday, May 1, beginning at 1 p.m.

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