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County court wants chance for more input
by Samantha White
U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Deputy Forest Supervisor Steve Beverlin attended the regular meeting of the Harney County Court (held July 17) to discuss road closures.
During the previous county court meeting (held July 3), the court discussed a letter submitted by Larry Hammond, which stated that he objects to road closures included in the proposed Malheur National Forest Upper Pine Hazardous Fuel Reduction Project.
According to the Upper Pine Environmental Analysis (EA) cover letter, which was signed by Acting District Ranger John Langley and dated June 17, the objectives of the Upper Pine project are to:
• reduce fuels to alter fire behavior and move the area toward historical fire behavior and frequency with historical effects on vegetation (from high mortality to low mortality);
• salvage harvest trees recently killed by insects and/or disease in order to reduce fuels and capture the economic value of those dead trees that are a surplus to other resources.
As part of the project, 19 roads or segments of roads (totaling 11.23 miles) would be closed, and three roads (totaling 1.2 miles) would be decommissioned.
In his letter, Hammond wrote that he objects to the proposed closing of the 11.23 miles of road and the decommissioning of 1.2 miles of road, and he specifically stated that he is in opposition of the proposed decommissioning of 0.42 miles of USFS Road 2855. He wrote that this road has provided access from the floor of the Harney Basin to and through the southeast corner of the forest from “pioneer times.” He added that, according to some old maps, the road was referred to as “Craft Springs Road” long before the USFS 2855 label was applied.
But according to the EA cover letter, “Objections will be accepted only from those who have previously submitted written comments specific to this project during scoping.” And, according to a scoping letter signed by former District Ranger Douglas Jones and dated Sept. 17, 2012, public comments regarding the project were requested by Oct. 19, 2012.
During the July 17 county court meeting, Beverlin explained that, because Hammond did not provide comments during public scoping, he did not have standing to object to the proposed project.
Hammond expressed frustration with the process, adding that losing access to USFS 2855 would equate to losing access to the whole area.
“It’s only 0.42 miles, but it’s wrong,” he said.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said the court is currently involved in three significant National Environmental Policy Act processes, and he has spent 40 hours reviewing just the first chapter of the sage grouse Environmental Impact Statement.
“The way it’s coming down, it feels overwhelming,” Harney County Commissioner Dan Nichols said, explaining that it is difficult to stay current on all proposed projects affecting the county.
Beverlin replied, “Given the number of acres [in Harney County], that is a tall order.”
Grasty asked Beverlin to help the court “keep a place holder” to prevent oversights from occurring.
Beverlin offered to remind the court a week before a project’s comment period is scheduled to end, and asked whether the court would like to be notified about every project.
Nichols replied that if there is ever any proposed restriction of access to public roads, the court “wants to hear about it,” adding that sooner would be better, as a week is “not nearly long enough.”
“I think the [Open Roads Coalition] is going to have to weigh in on these issues,” Grasty said. “We need to have public say on public uses.”
Grasty suggested that the USFS meet with the Open Roads Coalition (ORC) “early on” if any project includes proposed road closures, and he encouraged the ORC to send representatives that can be “a part of the process.”
“If we don’t hear from local folks who are impacted daily, we aren’t making the right decision,” Beverlin said.
Beverlin said the comment period for the Upper Pine project had been re-opened, and he reiterated that written comments would have to be submitted in order to gain standing to object. However, comments and objections had to be submitted by close of business July 19, as this marked the end of the objection period.
Nichols thanked Beverlin for the opportunity to provide input.
“We object so that we can be at the table,” Grasty explained, stating that the court’s goal is to “pull” decision making to “the middle.”
However, Grasty said he has a conflict of interest regarding USFS 2855 and could not comment on this particular road.
Nichols, who attended the ORC meeting that was held July 13, said, “What the coalition is doing is great,” but added that the county instigated the process and hired staff to start taking an inventory of roads.
“I hope we can continue in the mindset that we are working together,” he said.
Rep. Cliff Bentz attended the meeting to brief the court on several of the bills that he worked on over the last six months.
Bentz and the court also discussed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s sage grouse listing decision, which will be made in 2015. Bentz said he committed a staff member to the task of determining whether everything that can be done is being done to prevent sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species.
Bentz said funding is available to assist with this goal, and Grasty suggested that the money be used to hire a staff member to lead the effort.
Nichols asked why there has not been any “constructive discourse” regarding the threat of predation to existing sage grouse.
Grasty said, according to the answer he was given, it is because predators pose a “short-term” threat to the sage grouse population. However, he added that recent data shows that predators are impacting the population.
“Part of predation has got to be the hunting issue,” Grasty said. “We continue to hunt a species that might be listed.”
Bentz replied that the next thing he and his staff will do is create a summary of everything that can be done and determine whether all that can be done is being done.
During the public comment period, Herb Vloedman said he traveled to California and noticed that logging is “ripping right along” in that state.
In his travels, Vloedman also photographed signs that read, “Welcome to Douglas County. We honor our veterans,” and said he would like to obtain similar signs for Harney County.
Grasty said Lake County invested several thousand dollars into installing similar signs.
“If it’s over a thousand, we ought to think of a better way to do it,” Vloedman replied.
Grasty said he would determine the budget for the signs if Vloedman would assist with fundraising, and Vloedman agreed to do so.
Grasty added, “Harney County is a big supporter of vets.”
Vloedman also addressed the court regarding ongoing issues concerning the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program.
He asked, “What is the court’s position on that?”
Grasty responded, “We’ve been a very active participant in that. It’s a huge issue. We are trying to get ahead of it.”
He explained that the court is driving efforts to establish a base flood elevation certificate. He added that the county has explored the possibility of organizing an insurance pool that would be community based.
“We’re hard at it,” Grasty said regarding the county’s efforts.
In other business, the court:
• agreed to sign the certificate of appropriation of funds in support of Oregon State University Extension Service in the amount of $129,000 for fiscal year 2013-2014;
• learned from Harney County Commissioner Pete Runnels that he is still working to coordinate a joint meeting with members of the Harney County Health District Board, Eastern Oregon Community Care Organization (EOCCO), Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc. (GOBHI) and interested members of the public regarding CCOs.
The next regularly scheduled meeting of the county court will be held Wednesday, August 7, at 10 a.m. in Judge Grasty’s office at the courthouse.