A map in from the Vale district Bureau of Land Management highlights the newly designated wilderness lands in green. (Submitted)

VALE — The Vale district Bureau of Land Management continues taking public comments on its plan to manage southeast Oregon lands, providing an opportunity for citizens to have their say about updates.

The agency has five options and its preference is to relax the requirements about maintaining lands with wilderness characteristics. 

None of the alternatives would affect the cattle grazing on BLM land or the public’s access to recreation areas.

The amendment process started when the Oregon Natural Desert Association in 2003 sued the BLM Vale District over its 2002 resource management plan. The suit claimed that the bureau had not maintained an inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics as is required by the National Environmental Policy Act. 

At the time, all land identified with wilderness characteristics – determined by size and natural state, among other things – with data from the 1980s and early 1990s had been recommended for wilderness study areas, or WSAs. While it was the BLM’s role to recommend land for study areas, such areas are under Congress’s management. 

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Through a 2010 settlement to the lawsuit, the BLM and Oregon Natural Desert Association agreed that amendments to the plan were needed to address three areas: lands with wilderness characteristics, travel management for off-highway vehicles and the process after grazing permit holders voluntarily give up permits.

Determining lands with wilderness characteristics meant combing through 4.6 million acres of BLM land through field visits and geographic maps, a process that took several years. 

The bureau identified 76 new unit areas, or 1,236,907 acres, in the district with wilderness characteristics. Previously these areas would have been recommended for wilderness study designation, but Congress stopped designating new study areas in 1992. 

The current rules require the BLM to maintain the wilderness lands, specifically when it comes to protecting the area’s natural state, meaning the area must look “untrampled by man,” according to Pat Ryan, BLM Malheur County field manager.

That requirement can increase costs and land maintenance efforts for the district, which is why the bureau’s preferred plan relaxes the standards. 

For example, if the bureau is planting native grasses on land with wilderness characteristics after a fire, the current requirement means the grass must be planted in a natural-looking way. Planting the grasses with a tiller would create straight rows that look unnatural, so the bureau must spend more time and money to find alternative ways to plant in a natural-looking way.

“Not to say that’s not important,” Renee Straub, the agency’s co-lead on the plan amendment, said about spending the time and money to maintain a natural state, “but that’s the outcome of looking at things with a more cautious eye.”

Brent Grasty, BLM planner and co-lead on the plan, explained that while the plan can be strict, it is ultimately just an umbrella that guides the district in its decisions. The BLM still maintains an adaptive management policy, meaning that as new priorities arise during the 20-year life of the plan, the district can change course. 

“If conditions change we’re still under the umbrella, but we respond to them,” Grasty said.

While the district has a preferred plan, he said, the alternative plans can “stand alone” and the bureau would be pleased with any plan. It’s also possible the district will pull elements from various alternatives to fit what it hears during the public comment period.

“We’re very anxious to move forward,” Grasty said.

The plan can be read in full on the bureau’s eplanning website, most easily accessed through the Vale district BLM website under the “Latest News” section, or by search engine. Public comments can be made online via the eplanning website, emailed to BLM_OR_VL_SEORMP@BLM.gov or mailed to the Vale district office. The BLM will be taking public comment on the draft plan until Aug. 28 and hopes to have an official proposal by the end of the year.

Have a news tip? Reporter Isabella Garcia: isabellagenterprise@gmail.com or 541-473-3377.

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