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County signs an MOU with BLM for cooperating agency status on land withdrawal proposal

During its regular meeting on April 20, the Harney County Court decided to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Harney County and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The MOU establishes Harney County as a cooperating agency in conducting an environmental analysis and preparing the draft and final environmental impact statement (EIS) to analyze and disclose the potential effects of withdrawing approximately 10 million acres of public and National Forest System lands from location and entry under the United States mining laws (but not from leasing under the mineral or geothermal leasing laws), subject to valid existing rights.

A press release published in the Nov. 18, 2015 edition of the Burns Times-Herald, titled Meetings set for proposal to withdraw lands from mining entry explains that certain hardrock mining operations have been identified as a threat to sage grouse habitat, and the proposal considers withdrawing lands determined to be crucial to the birds’ survival. These lands have been segregated for a period of up to two years. During this period, the lands will be analyzed to determine whether they should be formally withdrawn to protect sage grouse habitat from adverse effects of future locatable exploration and mining. However, neither the segregation, nor any subsequent withdrawal, would prohibit ongoing or future mineral exploration or extraction operations on valid preexisting mining claims, or any other authorized uses of these lands.

Harney County Judge Steve Grasty explained that, as a cooperating agency, the court will be “at the table” in the beginning stages of the process.

“We had a social impact in this community, like no other community has ever had, and I will be challenging the BLM to identify in the their analyses…[the] social effects more regulation might have on causing events like we had for 41 days here. It will be very hard to work through that analysis, but, for me, that’s the opportunity in this,” he said.

Grasty added that the county’s legal counsel assured him that being a cooperating agency will not prevent the county from doing coordination, as well.

•••

The court also considered signing an MOU with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) for cooperating agency status as part of the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision process.

The Blue Mountains Forest Plans will guide the management of approximately 5 million acres of the Malheur, Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests.

After some discussion, the court agreed to send a letter to the USFS inquiring about coordination prior to signing the MOU for cooperating agency status.

The letter states, “We believe it would be appropriate to include in this memorandum of understanding, or in a separate MOU, the process wherein Harney County and the Forest Service will address the coordination required under the statutes that govern the National Forest Service’s planning process.” The letter continues, “While the cooperating agency and the coordination processes are similar, they are not mutually exclusive nor the same. Harney County recommends that they either be joined together into this MOU or that we develop a separate process and MOU addressing compliance with the coordination provisions.”

(Grasty said he’d like to send a similarly-worded letter to the BLM regarding participation in the coordination process for the aforementioned withdrawal proposal.)

As a cooperating agency, the court would be able to participate in briefings and discussions with the USFS regarding the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process in advance of the publication of the final EIS and draft revised forest plans. The court may also have access to select draft documents, and would be able to provide social and economic information to the USFS.

However, the coordination process would allow the court to ensure that the Blue Mountains Forest Plans coordinate with the county’s existing land and resource management planning.

The court will revisit its discussion concerning signing an MOU with USFS for cooperating agency status during its next regularly scheduled meeting.

•••

The court reviewed a letter written by the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners and Wallowa County Natural Resource Advisory Committee regarding the draft record of decision of the Cold Canal Vegetation Management Environmental Assessment.

Grasty said he likes the language in the final paragraph, which reads, “We object to any changes from the draft record of decision, except those identified above.”

He suggested that the court use similar language when it submits comments in support of a decision, explaining that this will allow the court to be at the table if there’s an appeal.

“What they just said is, ‘We don’t have any objection if nothing changes, but if anything changes, we object. And that puts them at the table,” Grasty explained. “That’s simple wording, and it’s a really good idea.”

•••

During the public comment period, the court was addressed by Becky Cunningham regarding Rimrock Recycling.

“Rimrock is in desperate straits,” she said, explaining that the organization hasn’t had enough volunteers to bale the material that should be baled, and sold and shipped.

Cunningham added that she’d like to hire some part-time employees to help bale, but in order to do so, Rimrock would have to pay a $2,000 deposit to the State Accident Insurance Fund (SAIF) Corporation. She said Rimrock doesn’t have enough funds to pay the deposit, and she requested that the county cover it.

Grasty asked whether Rimrock would be able to pay the part-time employees.

Cunningham replied, “I think we can move enough material that I can budget out very carefully how many hours we’re paying for and get that going.”

She added that Rimrock got a grant from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that has wages built into it, but the department has said it won’t be able to provide the funding until July. Grasty replied that he contacted DEQ and asked that the payment be moved up to May.

He added that he will contact SAIF to determine whether the deposit can be reduced or if their are creative solutions for helping a volunteer organization. The court agreed to pay the SAIF deposit, while trying to reduce it.

Grasty also asked Cunningham for a signed commitment stating that the deposit will come back to the county when it is no longer needed, and Herb Vloedman volunteered to help at Rimrock.

•••

The court agreed to contribute $2,365 from the county building fund to upgrade to LED lights in the Memorial Building at the Harney County Fairgrounds.

Grasty explained that Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative (OTEC) is offering a promotion to upgrade the lights for energy savings. Through its promotion, OTEC will contribute $2,130 toward the total project bid of $4,495.

While attending the candidate’s night at the Memorial Building, Grasty said he noticed that the lights were flickering on and off.

“It was, to say the least, disconcerting. Those are really old lights up there,” he said. “We have the money in the building fund, and I think this is a mistake not to do it,” he added, explaining that the LED bulbs will save energy and last “an incredibly long time.”

Grasty requested that the fair board submit a letter stating that it approves this project and would like to move ahead. He added that he’ll ask Rick Paul, interim fair manager, to have the rest of the buildings at the fairgrounds looked at.

•••

The court resumed its conversation concerning a revolving loan fund opportunity.

Grasty explained that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is offering a pot of money to establish a local loan fund to create economic development opportunities. For example, a business could borrow money to pay an electricity deposit or purchase a piece of equipment.

Grasty said that loan applications would be approved by a locally-appointed committee, and the Greater Eastern Oregon Development Corporation would hold, disperse and collect the money. However, he added that the county would ultimately be responsible for any losses.

Grasty acknowledged that there are two risks associated with accepting the loan. One is that the county would have to pay interest, and the other is that a borrower might fail to repay his/her loan.

Since Harney County Commissioner Dan Nichols was unable to attend the meeting, the court (consisting of Grasty and Harney County Commissioner Pete Runnels) tentatively agreed to establish the revolving loan fund, pending input from Nichols.

•••

In other business, the court:

• learned from Grasty that Nichols spoke about collaboration at Yale University on Tuesday, April 19;

• discussed options for funding the Juntura Cut-off Road project;

• signed an intergovernmental agreement to establish Oregon Association of County Engineers and Surveyors as an ORS 190. Grasty said an ORS 190 is “an organization that’s owned by public organizations;”

• was addressed by Mary Ausmus concerning the spraying of weeds on her property;

• signed a partnership agreement with the Department of Consumer and Business Services, Building Codes Division “to encourage economic development through construction and to use experimentation and innovation for administration of building inspection programs;”

• signed a memorandum of agreement with DEQ relating to permitting and inspection of onsite wastewater treatment systems;

• upon recommendation from Harney County Roads Supervisor Eric Drushella, accepted a bid from Idaho Asphalt Supply Inc. for chip seal oil;

• reviewed the Schedule of Proposed Action for the Malheur National Forest;

• reviewed water use requests;

• learned from Grasty that the court and the Oregon Water Resources Department and are looking for volunteers to serve on the Harney County Groundwater Study Advisory Committee;

• received correspondence from the Vale District of the BLM, announcing a field tour of the Northwest Malheur County Greater Sage-Grouse Habitat Restoration Project on May 26;

• received a letter from Steve Beverlin, forest supervisor for the Malheur National Forest, announcing timber sales to be offered between April 1 and Sept. 30.

Shana Withee noted that the attached paperwork didn’t appear to match the letter, and Grasty said he will follow up on that;

• received a letter from DEQ, stating that Harney Wasteshed is in compliance with the requirements of Oregon Administrative Rules, Chapter 340, Division 90, and the department has approved the Harney Wasteshed Opportunity to Recycle Program. DEQ also attached new recycling program elements and new waste prevention and reuse program elements that will be effective in 2017;

• received letters from Raven Wing and John David Simpkins opposing the paving of East Steens Road;

• reviewed categorical exclusions for livestock grazing permit renewals.

“I can assure you that ONDA [the Oregon Natural Desert Association] will be commenting, perhaps protesting or litigating, the use of categorical exclusions by the BLM,” Grasty said, adding that this is the only tool that the agency has to move grazing permits quickly, and he hopes the BLM never loses it’s ability to use it. “That would be incredibly time-consuming and costly for them, and [would] have a huge impact on our commercial operators,” he said;

• briefly discussed the annual report for the Housing Authority of Malheur and Harney Counties.

Runnels said the possibility of establishing a senior-related apartment complex near the Harney County Senior and Community Services Center is being explored;

• learned from Grasty that the USDA met with the county, Burns Paiute Tribe, city of Hines, and High Desert Partnership to discuss a variety of issues impacting the community.

Grasty commended Burns Paiute Tribal Chair Charlotte Roderique for building relationships between the tribe and county government, as well as Tribal Council Member Jarvis Kennedy for becoming “an incredible voice for this community;”

• learned from Grasty that the next budget board meeting will be held April 27 in the basement meeting room of the courthouse;

The next regular meeting of the Harney County Court will be held Wednesday, May 4, at 10 a.m. at the courthouse.

Samantha White

Samantha White was born and raised in Harney County, and she graduated from Burns High School in 2005. After high school, she attended the University of Oregon where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in magazine journalism. White was hired as a reporter for the Burns Times-Herald in September 2012.

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