CANYON CITY – A Grant County committee last week asked the County Court to take on the Forest Service over proposed road closures and a slate of similar actions processed last fall.
The Grant County Public Access Advisory Board presentation drew more than 20 people to the Dec. 24 Court meeting.
Board member Billie Jo George said the group was told Forest Supervisor Steve Beverlin was intending to sign a Code of Federal Regulations order, in effect closing or modifying access on a number of road in the north end of the Malheur, in January.
She said a prior slate of CFR changes approved by Beverlin’s predecessor, Teresa Raaf, in September did the same on the south end of the forest.
“We feel it is in violation of the Grant County ordinance,” she said. The Court in May 2013 approved an ordinance that requires agencies to consult with the county body and the sheriff before restricting access to the public lands in the county.
Beverlin, who attended the Court session, said he believes the September decision affects only Harney County roads, which would not fall under the Grant County ordinance. However, he pledged to review the list for any Grant County roads, and bring them back to the Court for discussion.
He also said he wasn’t going to sign any orders for road changes in January, but a review process for the northern forest would begin in the new year. He said that process would involve the public and county officials.
The access board presented a letter urging the Court to advise Beverlin not to approve any more road changes and to reconsider the September order signed by Raaf.
Several board members questioned whether the required National Environmental Policy Act studies had been done for all the changes; Beverlin cited a list of more than two dozen NEPA reviews linked to the orders.
The board said there was not enough public notice of the changes. Member Judy Kerr said that in addition to notices, the agency is supposed to post signs at the affected sites, and that has not been done.
Beverlin said he intends to follow the required process.
Board members were concerned about the volume of the changes included in the September order. Beverlin said the decision Raaf signed “was additive” – a compilation of new decisions added to the list of older decisions – some dating back to the 1990s.
Commissioner Boyd Britton asked if Beverlin and Raaf were in effect catching up for paperwork that wasn’t done by their predecessors.
“It seems like somebody back then didn’t do their job,” Britton said.
Beverlin didn’t respond to criticism of other managers, but acknowledged, “we’ve been lax.”
Going forward, he pledged to engage the public and bring any access modifications to the Court.
County Judge Scott Myers said he would have that opportunity.
“I don’t believe there’s a smokescreen here. There may have been in the past,” Myers said, adding he expects better cooperation from Beverlin and the current staff.
Board member Howard Geiger was still concerned about public notice and whether the road actions are based on NEPA reviews that were too dated to be valid.
Beverlin said he would review the decisions for “staleness.”
King Williams, a member of the Grant County Public Forest Commission, said the meeting had been a good forum, and he felt Beverlin was aware of the public concern.
Williams said no one wants to repeat what happened on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest with it’s controversial, failed foray into travel management a couple of years ago.
“We need to make sure we’re part of the engaged process,” Williams said.
Nicky Sprauve, who takes office in January as a forest commissioner, questioned how the county would enforce the ordinance if violations occur.
Myers conceded “we don’t know what enforcement will look like” as it wasn’t written into the ordinance. He said that was a good question for the county’ legal counsel.
Sprauve said the Court needs to look into it.
“People are tired of talk,” he said. “They want action, not just business as usual.”
Britton said Beverlin’s presence at the meeting is indicative that “things have changed” for the better.
“Mr. Beverlin knows full well what will happen” if the law is flouted, Britton said. “We’ll sue, and everything will grind to a halt, and the lawyers will make a bunch of money.”
Geiger said the group isn’t talking about lawsuits, but he still wanted the Court to put the agency on notice in writing that it must obey the ordinance.
Beverlin said he does have a letter from the Court about the ordinance, and he reiterated his commitment to review the September order and to communicate with the county on road and access proposals.
“I will not sign an order for the north part of the forest in January – or before bringing it to the Court for its review,” he said.
J.C. Oliver said the more communication there is in the early stages, the better it will be to find solutions to the issues that concern the public.