Staff from the Burns District Bureau of Land Management (BLM) attended the regular meeting of the Harney County Court March 16 to discuss the Community Action Committee.
The committee aims to enhance communications and strengthen relationships between the BLM and the people who live in Harney County. Goals include reestablishing an open dialogue with the public, facilitating a better understanding of how and why the BLM operates, and explaining how the agency invests in and works for the community’s well-being and success.
Current efforts include providing weekly columns in the Burns Times-Herald and attending various community and organization meetings.
Tara Thissell, BLM public affairs specialist, said,“Since the occupation [of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge], we’ve just really tried to come together as employees and see what can come out of it. What can we do? How can we continue relationships with the community?”
She explained that the weekly newspaper columns are addressing topics that came up during the occupation, as employees want to assure the public that these issues haven’t been lost.
She said BLM employees are also reaching out to existing groups and committees to explain their role in the community and encourage participation with the agency.
“We want people to think, ‘That’s not a big, strange organization that we can’t work with,’” Thissell said.
“That will help with healing in the community,” Harney County Commissioner Pete Runnels replied.
Harney County Commissioner Dan Nichols said he was “thrilled” to see the articles in the newspaper.
“The more information everyone gets, the better we can all work together to make the best use of public lands,” he said. “You guys should be commended for stepping up and doing that. We appreciate it. It will be a huge help.”
Nichols suggested writing a column about the impact that litigation from special interest groups has had on the district.
“The American public has no clue what it’s costing,” he said, adding that litigation has to be more reasonable, and this message needs to come from the general public.
“That’s really good feedback,” Thissell replied, explaining that BLM employees are seeking topics to address.
Anyone who is interested in suggesting a topic can call 541-573-4519, email BLM_OR_BU_Mail@blm.gov, or stop by the BLM office at 28910 Hwy. 20 West in Hines.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said the court receives about 2-6 inch stacks of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documents every month and has been struggling to stay on top of them. He and BLM staff discussed making a chart showing the current phase of each process and advising of upcoming deadlines.
Grasty and Nichols also discussed the criteria for substantive comments.
Thissell explained that substantive comments must explain why someone agrees or disagrees with a proposal, adding that she’d like to host a community workshop to teach people how to write comments.
However, Grasty and Nichols argued that some weight should be given to “yes” or “no” responses, as well as attendance at meetings.
Nichols also asserted that it’s “almost impossible” to collect the data necessary to make a substantive comment regarding the social and economic impacts of proposed plans, and he suggested developing a process for this research to be conducted.
Tara McLain, BLM realty specialist, said BLM staff discussed finding a college student who can complete a dissertation or study on the culture of ranching and logging in Harney County.
Mitzi Defenbaugh said, “We can’t have to have an environmentalist doing all the social work. That kind of thing has got to stop. It has to be someone who is not a party to just a certain group.”
Defenbaugh also asked how the public can get involved as soon as actions are proposed.
BLM Planning and Environmental Coordinator Emily Erwin said the Planning 2.0 initiative aims to increase public participation by encouraging public involvement at the beginning of planning processes, explaining that it’s easier to make changes when plans are still being shaped.
More information regarding Planning 2.0 can be found online at blm.gov/plan2.
During the public comment period, Rob Frank said he was asked to sign a petition to recall Grasty because he denied a community group access to a public building.
Grasty said the court agreed to deny Ammon Bundy access because he had already taken over a public building (Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters) and not returned it to the public. He added that no one completed the process for renting the building, which includes filling out forms, paying a fee, and providing proof of insurance.
Vanessa Leathers-King said the meeting was intended for anyone who was in support of the occupation, and organizers asked if they could still have the meeting if Bundy wouldn’t be there.
Grasty said he was under the impression that Bundy would be there.
The court agreed to ask the BLM if it can be a cooperating agency on a proposal to withdraw 10 million acres of mineral rights.
Barbara Cannady asked why the court chose to be a cooperating agency, instead of a coordinating agency.
Grasty replied that the court has used both cooperation and coordination successfully, adding that both are good tools, and one is not better than the other. However, he explained that, as a cooperating agency, the court will be able to help craft the decision and “be at the table from the beginning.”
The court reviewed the mineral evaluation report for Nathan MacAlevy’s mineral rights application.
Grasty explained that, in an attempt to make up for the loss of tax revenue, the county retains mineral rights on properties that it obtains due to tax foreclosure. However, Nichols developed a process for individuals who purchase these properties to apply for the mineral rights.
As part of the process, a qualified geologist or mining engineer is selected to determine the probable value of the mineral rights, and the applicant is required to pay for the investigation.
Grasty said that, after conducting the mineral evaluation, geologist William Burstow determined that no superficial evidence indicates the presence of mineral deposits with any economic significance.
The court agreed to ask MacAlevy to pay the cost of the evaluation ($650) and the minimum value of the mineral rights ($300). The order to convey the mineral rights to MacAlevy will be filed.
Nichols said he believes Harney County is the only county in the nation that offers this process to landowners, adding that, “This is one of the processes that shows we understand private property rights within our community, and we respect those.”
The court agreed to sign an intergovernmental agreement between Harney County and the Oregon Judicial Department (OJD) to replace the courthouse’s existing boiler system with a biomass heating system. OJD agreed to provide up to $440,000 from the 2015-2017 State Court Facilities and Security Account to help fund the project.
The court also agreed to sign a memorandum of agreement between Harney County and High Desert Biomass Cooperative (HDBC) and pass Resolution 2016-02, authorizing a promissory note with HDBC.
An Oregon cooperative corporation, HDBC will assume the obligations and rights under the equipment purchase agreements of the county (as well as Harney County School District No. 3) and serve as a third party that can mutually manage and own the biomass boiler installation and district energy piping, while providing opportunities for further biomass thermal energy development in the local community.
Harney County Clerk Dag Robinson said the county’s new vote tally system has been successfully tested and approved to count votes in Oregon.
The court received a certificate of approval signed by Jim Williams, director of the Secretary of State Elections Division.
Robinson said the county purchased the ClearCount Voting System from Clear Ballot Group to replace its aging system, which was sold to Umatilla County to be used as a backup.
Robinson added that the county clerk’s office has been rearranged to give the public a better view of the election process.
Grasty said he met with Rep. Cliff Bentz and a group of more than 25 people in Fields to discuss a possible gas tax increase to pay for road improvement projects in Harney County, and everyone in the room said they’d support it.
Grasty added that he plans to reach out to Harney County’s other rural communities regarding possible maintenance projects.
Runnels asked Rimrock Recycling’s Becky Cunningham and Harney County Community Corrections Director Lodi Presley to attended the meeting to discuss an ongoing effort to put individuals who are on probation to work at the recycling center. Hours worked at the center will count toward the individuals’ community service requirements.
Cunningham said she’s hoping to obtain funding to hire a supervisor who can ensure that the workers keep regular hours.
Grasty said Rimrock recently received between $13,000 and $14,000 in grant funding, but Cunningham said that’s only about half of what was requested. She added that Rimrock’s forklift “desperately” needs repairs, and the cost could consume the entire budget.
Presley suggested contacting Training and Employment Consortium (TEC) regarding the availability of jobs skills training programs. Runnels, Presley and Cunningham will set up a meeting with TEC.
Grasty also encouraged Cunningham to submit a request during the county budget process.
In other business, the court:
• was addressed by Rick Paul, interim manager for the Harney County Fair, Rodeo and Race Meet. Paul, who has been involved with the Multnomah County Fair for 20 years, said he will manage Harney County’s fair for a maximum of a year and a half;
• learned from Grasty that a special Harney County Court meeting was going to be held to review a permit for an outdoor mass gathering (a concert). This meeting has since been canceled;
• was addressed by Cannady regarding public access to Goal 5 planning meetings. Grasty said all of the meetings will be open to the public;
• was addressed by Cannady about LSN’s proposal to expand fiber infrastructure in Burns and Hines. (LSN is an Oregon telecommunications company based in Portland and owned exclusively by Oregonians.) Grasty said he has advocated for it;
• discussed replacing Harney County Surveyor Kenneth H. Delano Jr. who is resigning.
Grasty said, “We are going to need someone in place probably by the second meeting in April;”
• learned from Grasty that the county road department should be receiving a Secure Rural Schools Act payment;
• briefly discussed a recent hearing on the Echanis project;
• received a letter from members of the Bell “A” Grazing Cooperative, stating that, “The loss by the Hammonds of their BLM grazing rights on the Steens Mountain has been a severe blow, not only to the Hammonds, but also to this community and county.”
The letter requests that the court, “do whatever is legally possible to help reinstate the Hammonds’ BLM grazing permits.”
Grasty said he raised this issue all the way up to the secretary of the interior, and he’s also working at state and local levels.
He added that he appreciates the Bell “A” letter and plans to attach it to “add credibility” when making a public request or comments to the BLM;
• learned from Grasty that the Oregon Water Resources Department will hold a public hearing to discuss the proposed Malheur Lake Basin groundwater rules Wednesday, March 30, at 10 a.m., at the Harney County Community Center;
• received a letter regarding a BLM proposal to establish a strategic system of fuel breaks inside and outside the Soda fire perimeter in the Owyhee (Boise District/Idaho BLM) and Malheur (Vale District/Oregon BLM) field offices. Grasty said a portion of the Vale District is in Harney County;
• held an executive session to consult with legal counsel. No decisions were made.
The next regular meeting of the county court will be held Wednesday, April 6, at 10 a.m. at the courthouse.