CANYON CITY – An ordinance to give the Grant County Court and county sheriff authority over road closures proposed on public lands drew a crowd to the Courthouse in Canyon City this Wednesday.
The Court took testimony from a stream of residents supporting the ordinance at the public hearing. The turnout of 50-plus people overflowed the Court’s meeting room, so the hearing had to be moved upstairs to the larger Circuit Courtroom.
It was the first reading of the ordinance, which goes to a second public hearing May 22 at the Courthouse. Written comments will be accepted through May 21.
Residents at the May 8 session pressed the Court to pass the ordinance to preserve the historic and cultural public uses of the roads that pass through federal and state lands.
“The roads, trails, stock driveways, and byways over and across public lands in Grant County have customarily been utilized unrestricted by Grant 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,” noted the Grant County Public Forest Commission in a letter of support to the Court. The letter cited historic precedents, dating back to the Organic Act of 1897, for local access and influence over access decisions.
King Williams, speaking for the Commission, said agencies must recognize the interests of “the permanent settler, the permanent businessman, the man with a stake in the country” – quoting a State of the Union address by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Sheriff Glenn Palmer stressed the need for road access for public safety reasons. He described several several search and rescue operations that were hampered when searchers encountered locked pole gates or bermed road closures.
He also said people shouldn’t be at risk of Forest Service Law Enforcement action for using roads that may be considered closed but aren’t marked as such.
Others testified simply that they and their families support the ordinance. Some expanded on that by voicing frustration with Forest Service management.
Several complained about a public meeting held several years ago concerning travel management proposals on the Malheur National Forest, saying the forest supervisor at that time didn’t take questions or allow group discussion and comments. At that session, residents instead were directed to smaller groups if they had questions.
John Morris told the Court that meeting “upset me severely.”
“Public lands are public lands,” he said. “We need access to those lands for the enjoyment of all the people.”
Teresa Raaf, the current Malheur National Forest supervisor, urged the group to consider that the forest leadership has changed “since that infamous meeting several years ago, that is burned into people’s minds.”
“I would ask that people be willing to look toward the future instead,” she said.
She told the Court there are procedures by which local governments can take control of roads on the federal lands. That can be time-consuming and costly, she conceded, and it does require that the local government assume maintenance of the roads.
Raaf said the Forest Service currently has two main reasons for closing a road: protection of wildlife that may be harrassed by vehicle or trail use, and protection of fish habitat from sediments washing off roads.
No one stepped up to testify in opposition to the ordinance, although when asked about her testimony, Raaf said that as a private citizen she wouldn’t be in favor. She based that on concerns about wildlife and fish habitat.
The ordinance would apply to all public lands, not just Forest Service, but also Bureau of Land Management and state-managed areas.
Brooks Smith, a former district ranger on the Malheur, said the ordinance seems like an attempt to persuade the agencies to consult with local governments.
“I don’t think it’s scary … I think it’s doable,” he said.
Mike Smith, a member of the Public Forest Commission, also noted the ordinance doesn’t mean roads could never be closed, but it would require the agency to coordinate with the county government and the sheriff.