JOHN DAY – Citizens from Grant County, and neighboring counties, gathered at a July 7 meeting to raise their concerns regarding forest access issues on the Malheur National Forest.
About 50 people were in attendance at the public listening session held at the Grant County Regional Airport conference room in John Day, including Forest Service officials, members of the Grant County Public Forest Commission, Grant County Access Advisory Board, Blue Mountain Forest Partners, Citizens for Public Access, County Court, and others.
Jack Southworth of Seneca facilitated the four-hour-long meeting, asking questions and allowing all in the room an opportunity to respond.
The meeting was set up by County Judge Scott Myers with Forest Supervisor Steve Beverlin and is the first of three public listening meetings with three topics to be covered – forest access, grazing, and pace and scale of restoration work on the Malheur National Forest.
Sitting in a large circle, the audience was asked what concerns they have regarding forest access. Several said forest road closures are changing their way of life and history.
Dennis Lynch of Prairie City said there are roads he’s used for hunting in the past that are closed, and he feels he has to “know every nook and cranny of the law” to know where he’s allowed to travel, adding he’d like his kids and grandkids to enjoy the forest.
Many took the view that the system for closing roads is broken, including Larry Blasing of Prairie City, a Grant County public forest commission member. “We need a system that is more user friendly,” he said.
While agreeing with Blasing, Grant County Commissioner Chris Labhart of John Day added, “All I want is a civil discourse, and I feel we have that with the new forest supervisor.”
Public Forest Commission member Jim Sproul of Canyon City, and fourth-generation family rancher, said he wrote five comments to the Forest Service, and hasn’t received a reply. “The Forest Service works for us. County people need to stand up,” he said.
Several others around the room also complained their emailed comments had not been answered.
Midway through the meeting, Dennis Dougherty, recreation planner for the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision Team, gave an overview of some of the history of forest planning.
Southworth then asked, “What’s one thing the Forest Service can do to make you feel you’ve been heard?”
Among the replies:
“Answer my question, whose forest is it?”
“Show us respect, and be active listeners.”
“Just tell us the truth.”
Beverlin, in reply spoke next.
“Whose forest is it (you ask)? It’s Grant County’s forest; it’s the forest of the citizens of the United States. We manage it in trust for (them),” he said.
Mark Webb of Mt. Vernon, executive director of Blue Mountain Forest Partners, said the Forest Service should do more to develop a relationship with the locals to gain insight in the decision-making process. “You might have a better resolution,” he said.
Howard Gieger of John Day said he’s seen a lot of changes with the Forest Service over the last 50 years. “In the 70s you saw them communicate – they let you know what was going on,” he said. “The forest is our forest – we’re responsible.”
The Grant County Ordinance 2013-01 pertaining to public road closures was also part of the discussion; it states the Forest Service will not close roads without consent of County Court and the sheriff. There was some talk as to whether it’s enforceable.
“If we have an ordinance in Grant County and it’s not legal, let’s forget it – if it is legal, abide by it,” said Mike Moore of Bear Valley.
“Our attorneys do not believe the Grant County ordinance is legal,” Beverlin said.
Added Robert Armbruster of Sumpter, “Decisions are best made at the local level. Freedom of access is imperative to a mountain way of life.”
After the meeting, Sabrina Stadler, Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision team leader, commented, “I think the message is loud and clear that we need to get out there and engage with the public. They wanted to feel heard and by doing these sessions we have the opportunity to listen to them – I think the conversations are helping us to craft a final Forest Plan.”
Stadler emphasized that the Forest Plan Revision and Travel Management Planning are two separate planning processes. Subpart B of the Travel Management Rule (Designation of Roads, Trails and Areas Open to Public Motor Vehicles) will begin after the Forest Plan Revision is complete.
She added a response to the comments would be included in the final Environmental Impact Statement.
Myers was pleased with how the meeting went. “It was a good opportunity for people to speak their mind, and I think they did a pretty good job,” he said. “It was also a good opportunity for the Forest Service to listen to what the public’s concerns are in relation to access – the ability to use the forest as they’ve historically been able to – and for the Forest Service to say why things are done the way they are.
“Jim Pena (region forester) wanted to put travel management on hold pending the completion of the Forest Plan,” Myers added. “It is disheartening – it appears to some they’re trying to close roads project by project instead of waiting for the rewrite to be completed. The public needs to get involved and stay involved. They need to take advantage of the opportunity.”
The two listening sessions regarding grazing and pace and scale of restoration work on the Malheur National Forest have been scheduled, the dates and locations to be announced.