CANYON CITY – The Grant County Court is asking the Forest Service to hold off on road closures in the Malheur National Forest’s Elk 16 and Big Mosquito projects.
In a letter drafted last Friday, the Court said they felt the bulk of the work of the projects could be done without immediate road closures.
The letter asks that the roads remain open until the agency can prove “one at a time” that proposed closures are being done legally, with the proper National Environmental Policy Act process and the support of the Court and the sheriff. The latter is required by a 2013 Grant County ordinance regarding access changes on the public lands in the county.
The letter, sent to the Forest Service’s Regional Office, was drafted after a special Court meeting last Friday scheduled as the objection phase for the two projects comes to an end.
It was signed by County Judge Scott Myers and Commissioners Boyd Britton and Chris Labhart.
The Court attached 29 pages, copies of letters and emails it received from the public on the issues, to the letter.
Sheriff Glenn Palmer, one of those who submitted written remarks to the Court, also spoke at Friday’s meeting.
He said he opposes any more road closures from a public safety standpoint and in keeping with the county ordinance. He cited problems for search and rescue, when roads are gated, bermed or barricaded, and he questioned the legality of such measures.
The Court’s letter didn’t rule out eventual closures.
“We believe the proposed closures could take place, after taking a step back for a better look at the consequences of these actions,” the Court wrote. “Furthermore, this would give the Forest Service more time to build the much needed trust of the American citizens whom it serves.”
Trust emerged as an issue in the discussion, which drew about 20 citizens to the Courthouse.
Commissioner Chris Labhart acknowledged the process had led to confusion about the road closures listed for the two projects, noting the vast majority are old closures, not proposed. He said the total includes roads from the Phoenix timber sales that were closed long ago. He cited a stack of NEPA documents dating back to the 1990s for the roads.
“They were already closed, under this particular timber sale,” Labhart said.
Brooks Smith, a Grant County Public Forest Commission member and former Forest Service employee, questioned how open that process was, saying the NEPA has to be specific about the roads and the public must be involved.
“There’s an appearance that it wasn’t an open process,” he said. “It needs to be more visible, more transparent.”
He said the issue has been infused with tension, and it didn’t need to be that way.
Others noted the agency must list all roads – closed or open – for analysis in the project documents because they remain part of the transportation system unless decommissioned.
Court and audience members took issue with plans to physically decommission some roads, saying the cost would exorbitant. They also said those roads could be needed in the future for firefighting or harvest hauling.
But access for community uses – recreation, hunting, wood cutting and more – was a big sore spot.
Palmer said he could understand if there are concerns about ruts and four-wheeler damage, but he said the roads are important.
“Cutting off access – it’s killing this community,” he said.
Members of the public also questioned whether the agency’s road density goals were driving the process.
Road advocates, however, said they don’t want to hamper the timber work proposed in the projects.
“The access people do not want to harm the vegetative management at all,” said Jim Sproul. He said they need to separate the roads and timber issues.
Court members agreed on a stand against decommissioning of roads.
Britton said while he felt roads already closed in the Phoenix sale should remain closed, he’d like to see a better explanation of the rationale for proposed closures.
Myers read a letter he’d submitted personally, and Court members agreed it could be used as a framework for their letter. Several in the audience said they approved of Myers’ approach.
Contacted this week, Malheur Forest Supervisor Steve Beverlin said the next steps are in the hands of the Forest Service Regional Office, which will determine who among the objectors has standing. In general, an individual or entity must submit comments during the official comment period to have standing in the objection phase.
Once standing is determined, the regional staff will set up meetings to try to resolve the concerns.
Aside from that process, Beverlin said he appreciates the public’s active engagement in the process.
“Even if people don’t have standing, we’ll take their thoughts into account,” he said.
Asked about the Court’s request to delay road changes, Beverlin didn’t address the two projects specifically. However, he noted that projects generally follow a sequence of events, “and any access changes generally happen toward the latter stages.”