By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
An environmental group has accused the U.S. Bureau of Land Management of unlawfully clearing roads in eastern Oregon without studying the effects.
The Oregon Natural Desert Association has filed a legal complaint challenging the agency's "landscape-scarring mechanical blading, grading, reconstruction and improvement" of 133 miles of roads on public land.
According to the complaint, the agency maintains these roads even though they're often so overgrown, washed-out or eroded as to be functionally non-existent.
The group alleges that BLM excludes such road projects from environmental analysis and public comment despite their "widespread, environment-altering impacts."
A spokesperson for BLM said the agency could not comment on the allegations.
Harney County, where the project is, plans to intervene in the lawsuit voluntarily as a defendant, said Steve Grasty, the county judge.
"These roads are and have been used for livestock maintenance and access to permits and fire response," he said. "This looks like normal maintenance."
The complaint contends that the project would open areas to motorized access within the BLM's 500,000-acre Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area, according to the complaint.
BLM has "engaged in a pattern and practice" of excluding such road maintenance from processes mandated under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, the complaint said.
The law allows agencies to "categorically exclude" some minor projects from the NEPA process but the BLM has failed to show that the road project's environmental impacts are insignificant, the complaint said.
Grasty said the lawsuit is just the latest in a series of actions taken by ONDA to prevent road maintenance in the region.
"If there's a pattern, it's a pattern of that group litigating everything the (BLM's) Burns District does," he said. "I can't understand it. I wish there were solutions rather than just obstacles."
According to the complaint, maintaining these "naturally reclaimed" roads impairs the "ecological integrity" of public land by introducing invasive weeds along the routes, fragmenting habitat and harming water quality along stream crossings.
The environmental group has asked a federal judge to block further road maintenance, order an environmental analysis of the action and order the BLM to pay the plaintiff's attorney fees.
Roads on public lands are critical for ranchers and others in remote areas of eastern Oregon, said Bob Skinner, chairman of the public lands committee of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association.
"We need roads for general ranch management and we also need them to fight fires and for general safety," he said.