by Samantha White
Members of the Citizens Working Group attended the regularly-scheduled meeting of the Harney County Court (held Sept. 17) to propose an ordinance pertaining to public land closures.
Kenny Bentz explained that the group would like to see the court pass an ordinance that is very similar to Grant County’s Ordinance 2013-01, which was signed by all Grant County Court members and the Grant County sheriff May 22, 2013.
Borrowing language from the Grant County ordinance, the Citizens Working Group proposed an ordinance that would state:
“Whereas, the safety and well-being of Harney County citizens and the custom and culture of Harney County are closely tied to the public lands within the boundary of Harney County; and
Whereas, the roads, trails, stock driveways, and by-ways over and across these public lands have customarily been utilized unrestricted by Harney County residents for search and rescue, fire protection, firewood gathering, access for hunting and fishing, livestock management, logging activities, mining, recreational uses and general welfare.
Therefore, be it hereby ordained that for the safety and well-being of Harney County citizens all roads, trails, stock driveways and by-ways over and across public lands within the boundary of Harney County Oregon shall remain open as historically and customarily utilized consistent with the Harney County plans and policies, unless otherwise authorized for closure by the Harney County Court and Harney County sheriff.”
Jim Sproul, co-chair of Grant County’s Public Access Advisory Board, explained that Ordinance 2013-01 was written to ensure people have access to public lands. He added that the ordinance was written with local, cultural knowledge and that the Public Access Advisory Board was created to advise the Grant County Court on access decisions.
Sproul said federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and United States Forest Service, have followed the ordinance.
“It seems to be working,” he said.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said there isn’t anything that the local government could do that would give it authority over federal and state law.
Sproul explained that the ordinance doesn’t limit the federal government. Instead, it requires agency staff to concur with county government.
“Our broader goal is to have them ask us,” he said.
Bentz asserted that passing a similar ordinance in Harney County would give county officials more say regarding access to public lands.
Grasty said having an ordinance makes sense.
However, he added that, “Choosing the words is going to be really important.”
He explained that the court’s legal counsel reviewed Grant County’s ordinance “word-for-word” when it went into effect and found that some of it may not be necessary for, or applicable to, Harney County.
He said, “I have heard from counsel that we already have these laws in place.”
He added that the court has regular communication with local agency staff.
“I can’t say they listen to us every time, but I can’t say a month goes by where we don’t have a federal agency in here talking to us,” Grasty said. He added, “We can’t deny that a fair number of federal employees here today are long-time Harney County families, and they are just as much a part of this community as everyone else is.”
Bentz said, “I have nothing against local BLM staff, nothing. Those folks are local people too. But decisions come from Washington, D.C.” He asked, “How do we fix that?”
Grasty said he wished he had the answer to that question.
Citizens Working Group member Brandon Baron said he thinks a lot of agency staff would support the ordinance, “but they are reluctant to voice that opinion because of their boss.”
He added that local office staff can change, and having an ordinance in place would give agency staff “something to conform to.”
Grasty said the county is currently in the middle of a “very contentious” road map process, and he suggested addressing the ordinance after the hearing concerning a map of roads within Harney County closes.
“I don’t want anyone to tell us that [we passed this ordinance] so the outcome of the map would be different,” Grasty said.
He explained that the biggest debate concerning the map has been about access to private land.
Sproul said Grant County’s ordinance only pertains to public land.
However, Grasty asserted that it’s impossible to travel the length of most roads within Harney County without alternating between private and public ownership. He agreed to sit down with group members to demonstrate and work through some actual examples.
Grasty also invited the group to discuss the proposed ordinance with Barbara Cannady, stating that she might have a different perspective.
Cannady said she agreed with everything Sproul did regarding public lands.
The court agreed to address the ordinance after the map hearing closes.
“Correctly worded to work down here, I think this [ordinance] could be a benefit, without a doubt,” Grasty said.
The court received a letter from Andrea Davies concerning the map of roads within Harney County.
Davies wrote, “I would like to see a distinction between private and public roads and accesses on the map. All landowners should have the right to remove any roads, trails, salt roads, etc. that are not for public usage. I really believe Ms. Cannady is correct on this one.”
The court will continue to receive comments concerning the map until the hearing closes on Oct. 15.
The court resumed its discussion concerning an Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) speed zone investigation that was recently conducted on Egan Road.
Harney County Roads Supervisor Eric Drushella said he received word that the south zone (from Culp Lane to the south boundary of the Harney County Fairgrounds) will be set at 35 mph, instead of the 45 mph limit that was recommended in ODOT Region 5 Traffic Investigator Rich Heinemann’s report.
The court agreed to sign a quitclaim deed, releasing the road right-of-way reservation that the county holds on a piece of ground owned by Jeff and Sherri Hussey near East Steens Road.
The Husseys have elected to donate the parcel to the federal government and receive a tax deduction.
In other business, the court:
• was addressed by Mary Ausmus regarding the letter Cannady submitted during the previous meeting (held Sept. 3).
Ausmus asked why Cannady was discussing her personal trial with the county court.
“I’m getting a little weary of my tax dollars being used for a private problem,” she said.
Cannady replied that the letter discusses an issue concerning the map of roads within Harney County;
• was addressed by Herb Vloedman concerning a fire hazard along the nature trail.
Grasty said he’d explore the possibility of posting signs, stating that smoking is prohibited on the trail.
Grasty also thanked Vloedman for his efforts in obtaining veterans recognition signs;
• received a letter from Jennifer Williams, requesting a donation to help defray the cost of bringing Kevin Pearce to Burns Sept. 29. Pearce will help educate the community about brain injuries.
Grasty said he’d look at public health funding;
• signed five bargain and sale deeds for county-owned properties that were purchased during the county land sale auction;
• approved signing an order of appointment in the matter of appointing a pool of members for the Harney County Board of Property Tax Appeals.
The next regularly-scheduled meeting of the county court will be held Wednesday, Oct. 1, at 10 a.m. in Judge Grasty’s office at the courthouse.