FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
BLM agrees to close illegal roads on Steens Mountain
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agreed on Friday to temporarily close five miles of illegally constructed roads while it studies rehabilitation and possible permanent closure to protect fragile, largely unfragmented sagebrush habitat in a protected area on Steens Mountain.
The agreement, adopted by a federal district judge on Monday, was filed in response to a lawsuit brought by the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) in July. ONDA filed the suit after discovering that BLM had widened and built roads, ripped ancient juniper trees out by the roots and bulldozed native plants and sagebrush habitat in this congressionally protected area in southeast Oregon. ONDA argues BLM’s project threatens to establish illegal driving on the iconic desert mountain, destroys proposed and existing wilderness areas, fragments critical wildlife habitat and opens the mountain to weed infestations.
“This is one of the most serious instances of purposeful damage to wilderness and ecological values on public lands we’ve ever seen in Oregon’s high desert,” said Brent Fenty, ONDA’s executive director. “BLM has built several major roads that carve up this remarkable, nationally significant landscape. This interim agreement protects against further damage while BLM comes up with a solution.”
The BLM project, undertaken without any environmental study or public involvement, widened and built roads on 28 miles of primitive or previously non-existent routes on Steens Mountain. The routes travel through the Blitzen River Wilderness Study Area and a citizen-proposed wilderness area. BLM even extended some roads into the protected Steens Mountain Wilderness Area and the Donner und Blitzen Wild and Scenic River corridor. ONDA claims that the construction violates a federal law passed by Congress in 2000 prohibiting building new vehicle routes within a 428,000 acre protected area on Steens Mountain.
“The indiscriminate use of off-road vehicles is one of the most serious threats to Steens Mountain,” said Fenty. “By converting primitive wilderness two-tracks into wide scars on the landscape, BLM has left these remote areas vulnerable to weeds and off-road vehicle trespass.”
Under the interim agreement, the agency will develop a rehabilitation program and it will consider the possible permanent closure of these routes to protect this fragile landscape. BLM also agreed to cancel plans to develop a natural spring near the Wilderness area, and to delay still other plans for more extensive spring developments and fencing within the Wilderness Study Area. Those projects would require extensive road upgrades similar to the construction at issue here.
In 2000, Congress passed the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act. The law created a 428,000 acre protected area called the Cooperative Management and Protection Area (CMPA). BLM must manage the CMPA to protect the “long-term ecological integrity of Steens Mountain for future and present generations.”
Steens Mountain is situated deep in southeast Oregon’s high desert. It rises more than 9,700 feet from broad sagebrush steppe interspersed with juniper woodlands, aspen groves, and relic fir stands. On its east side, a mile-high escarpment overlooks the ancient Alvord Valley below. The mountain’s various habitats and more than 100 miles of federally-designated Wild and Scenic Rivers support a diversity of fish and wildlife species.