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Environmentalists wary of Steens Wilderness plan
By Rachel Odell
December 28, 2003
Environmentalists fear that consultants with strong ties to the mining industry who wrote a management plan for about 1.6 million acres of public land in southeastern Oregon ignored their concerns.
In October 2002, environmentalists from the Oregon Natural Desert Association asked the Bureau of Land Management to designate 363,000 acres in southeastern Oregon as wilderness study areas. The land surrounded the Steens Wilderness Area, which was created in 2000.
They got no response.
The proposed area fits into a larger parcel — roughly 1.6 million acres — for which the agency was writing a management plan.
Today, Bureau of Land Management officials have completed that draft plan, and it does not create wilderness study areas, which would ban motor vehicles and impose some strict restrictions.
However, officials do recommend leaving open about 448,000 acres to mining.
Much of that land sits where the environmentalists proposed closing off the land to extractive industries as a wilderness study area.
Before early December, that wouldn't have raised eyebrows among the environmental community.
But disclosure that the federal land management agency contracted with a consulting group with strong mining ties to write the management plan raises questions of impropriety, said Bill Marlett, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a Bend-based environmental advocacy group.
Bureau of Land Management officials hired Reno, Nev.-based Enviroscientists to write the plan.
Richard DeLong, Enviroscientists president, is treasurer of the California Mining Association. Opal Adams, vice president, is on the board of trustees of the Northwest Mining Association.
"Before finding out the history of Enviroscientist (the consulting company), the thought that the disregard for our proposal and the mining recommendations were related wouldn't have crossed my mind," Marlett said. "Since then, it has."
Bureau of Land Management officials said the wilderness study area proposal and the writing of the management plan were separate processes that had nothing to do with each other. In a written response to questions from The Bulletin, Bureau of Land Management spokesman Chris Strebig said the agency could not have included wilderness study area proposals in the management plan.
"Oregon Natural Desert Association's proposals for new wilderness study areas were evaluated by a BLM team for possible wilderness character," Strebig wrote. "The contractor (Enviroscientists) was never involved in this evaluation ... The BLM team, using established evaluation protocol, found that 23 of the 24 proposals that ONDA submitted did not have wilderness character."
The plan is officially known by its bureaucratic label — the Draft Resource Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement for the Andrews Management Unit/Steens Mountain Cooperative Management Protection Area. It seeks to strike a balance between protecting the environment, allowing the land to be used for commodities, such as grazing and logging, and preserving cultural needs, according to the document.
Highlights of the plan include opening 27 percent of the planning area — almost 460,000 acres — to mineral exploration and development, according to an executive summary of the plan.
The preferred alternative calls for reducing the area where wild horses are allowed on the South Steens by about 1,100 acres, from 127,838 acres to 126,732 acres.
It also calls for creating more motorized access for snowmobiles and for creating ‘motorized access to dispersed campsites‘ in order to increase public access.
To that end, the alternative calls for opening most roads and trails, except for those in the Steens Mountain Wilderness Area, to off-highway vehicle use. Officials hired Enviroscientists to compile information provided by BLM staff and management, Strebig said.
Officials will rely on the company to present the information in easily readable formats, he said. Company employees will also consider public comments on the draft plan that are easy to display to the public. They will consider the comments and propose any changes between the draft plan and the final plan, which will be released later this year.
Strebig said the company's mining ties do not present a conflict of interest because "professional organization affiliations are not considered conflicts of interest."
But disclosure of the mining ties have prompted members of Congress to ask Interior Secretary Gale Norton to review federal agencies' hiring of contractors.
Marlett said he welcomed the scrutiny.
"This is our tax money at work," Marlett said. "We should be able to trust the process."
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Read more . . .
Steens Management Plan outsourced to mining proponents
A Steens Mountain adventure
Backpacking Steens Big Indian Gorge Photos of this trip
A Steens Mountain wedding
Oregon Natural Desert Association ONDA
ONDA survey of Owyhee Canyon
Owyhee Canyon Wilderness study area
NOLS adventure in the Owyhee Canyon
Basic responsibilities of the wilderness traveler
The Ten Essentials
Leave No Trace
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