Objectors and interested persons had a chance to meet with Forest Service reviewing officers for the Blue Mountains Forest Plan at the Grant County Fairgrounds on Nov. 27.
The session on access drew a crowd, and facilitator Mary Farnsworth reminded everyone that it wasn’t likely anything would be resolved that day.
Chris French, the reviewing officer from the Forest Service office in Washington, D.C., noted that access had struck a nerve for people in Grant County. Issues in the Malheur National Forest included off-road motorized use, safety reasons such as fire and emergency response, access to private lands and protecting historical and recreational uses. On top of all that was a concern about a travel management plan that could follow the forest plan.
Numerous objectors noted that the Forest Service didn’t need to close roads — they close on their own from lack of use. The public maintained many forest roads as they used them, the objectors said.
Locals were witness to forest roads closing over the years project by project, Billy Jo George said — and then they saw the Forest Plan. The Malheur National Forest was heading from an open forest to a closed forest, she said, and the direction seemed be a mandate from Washington, D.C. For those who rely on the forest, the change was making honest people into criminals, she said.
Under a closed forest, all roads are closed unless designated as open, Frances Preston said.
Closed forest roads made putting out the 2015 Canyon Creek Complex fire more difficult, Jim Sproul said. Grant County never had that problem before, he said.
The stage was set years ago by previous forest supervisors, Judy Kerr said. In addition to closing roads, the Forest Service had illegally taken over historic roads that should belong to the county, she added.
Howard Geiger said he wasn’t opposed to closing some roads, but the Forest Service should not use “tank trap” berms or rip up the roadways because the road could not be reopened in an emergency. He also noted that “tank trap” berms can be dangerous for snowmobilers. Geiger said many road closures were rubber-stamped through the federal environmental review process without individual review.
Destroying the forest road system made no sense, Shannon Voigt said. Closing roads will impact all multiple uses, from berry picking to firewood cutting, he said.
The Forest Service has done more harm to Grant County than anything else in history, Ron Phillips said. Residents can no longer make a living here unless they’re a government employee, he said. As a result, residents rely on firewood cutting to heat their homes, but road closures force them into smaller and smaller areas. As for wildfires, the sooner firefighters can get to them the better, so roads need to be kept open, he said.
Rex Storm, representing Associated Oregon Loggers, said the Forest Service places too much emphasis on ecosystem management and not enough on socioeconomic benefits. Management decisions are coming from Washington, D.C., not local officials, he said. Road-density figures for elk security were artificial, and impacts to fish and riparian areas were overstated while socioeconomic review was insufficient.
Grant County Commissioner Jim Hamsher said roads should not be closed until the forest is “cleaned up” to reduce fire risks. He didn’t want cities in Grant County to suffer the same fate as Paradise, California, recently did in the Camp Fire. He also noted that the rebounding recreation industry could benefit from more open roads.
Hamsher said he wanted the Forest Service to work more closely with the county. The Forest Plan objection process provided little time for him to comment, he said.
Objectors and interested persons in the room represent hundreds of years of experience and education in forestry, Sheriff Glenn Palmer said. He recalled cutting firewood in the past all across the Malheur National Forest and a more vibrant timber industry that kept locals employed. He suggested keeping the forest open to everyone and handing responsibility over some forest roads to the county.
Alec Oliver, representing the Grant County Stockgrowers Association, explained the importance of open roads to ranchers moving cattle to pasture. He suggested the Forest Service let ranchers maintain the roads. He noted that everyone in the room favored leaving the roads open and said he didn’t see the need to spend money decommissioning roads — let them close on their own, he said.
Joe Cronin, a rancher from Burns, was concerned a forest road providing important access to his property could be closed — even after he spent more than $27,000 on repairs to it. A historic road used to move his cattle might also be closed in the future, he said.
Mike Browning recalled a past Forest Service meeting on access. About 350 concerned residents were told about future road closures, and no public comment was taken, he said. The people of Grant County should be allowed to comment on all prior road closures, he said. He was pessimistic about the outcome of the latest meeting — the Forest Service will do whatever it wants, he said.