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Land | Ecotrope

Roadwork is complicated on Steens Mountain

High desert surrounding Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon.

High desert surrounding Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon.

Here’s a news item for you: The Bureau of Land Management, after upgrading and widening 28 miles of road through Steens Mountain last summer, has agreed to close some of the roads and narrow the rest.


This news release from Oregon Natural Desert Association will help explain. On Friday, BLM settled a lawsuit filed by the conservation group, which claimed the road expansions on Steens Mountain were illegal. As part of the settlement, BLM agreed to close road sections built in protected areas on the mountain and repair habitat damage (in part by narrowing the newly widened roads).

ONDA says it discovered BLM had expanded 28 miles of primitive, two-track routes through the Steens, lined with juniper trees and sagebrush habitat, and did it without environmental assessments. The routes passed through two protected wilderness areas and the Donner and Blitzen Wild and Scenic River corridor - areas where federal law prevents road construction and other development.

After reading ONDA’s account of the matter, I had to wonder why BLM built these roads in the first place. We’ll get to that.

ONDA said the new roads threaten to:

  • invite illegal driving on the desert mountain;
  • destroy proposed and existing wilderness areas;
  • fragment wildlife habitat; and
  • open the mountain to weed infestations.

In response to the lawsuit, BLM has agreed to close three route segments to protect large, unfragmented roadless areas next to Steens Mountain Wilderness Area. And the agency will narrow the rest of the routes, eliminate ditches, redistribute soil and rocks, replant disturbed areas with native seed and plants and remove downed juniper trees.

“This was one of the most serious instances of purposeful damage to wilderness and ecological values on public lands we had ever seen in Oregon’s high desert,” said Brent Fenty, ONDA’s executive director. “We are pleased that BLM has owned up to its mistake and decided to repair the damage done to this nationally significant landscape.”

Ok, said Joan Suther, resource area manager for BLM in Burns, “we definitely did err in that our road crew went into the wilderness on a road that already existed and improved that section of road that went through the wilderness boundary, the lines of which were not marked. So, we had a black eye on that.”

However, she added, the roads were not built, but rather “maintained” to ease access for several future projects, including:

  • prescribed fires;
  • a wild horse gather (more on this later); and
  • a habitat restoration project

Yes, BLM should have done more environmental analysis on the project, Suther said. The work was done with less oversight than it should have had. But the agency has a new road maintenance policy (as of last fall) that should correct that problem.

“I’m happy to see those changes being made,” Suther said. “It will create consistency for resource areas between the people who plan projects and the people who get on the equipment and implement them.”

Bureau of Land Management Steens Mountain

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