For reasons as yet unclear, the BLM took a backhoe and other heavy equipment and plowed more than 14 miles of roadway. According to the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association, which is suing the BLM, the work involved "construction of a newly-bladed two-lane road into the area as well as road construction into the Steens Mountain Wilderness along the Donner Und Blitzen Wild and Scenic River. The development uprooted hundreds of junipers including several old growth trees," as well as moving boulders the size of cars. The affected area "contains important habitat and breeding territory for Greater sage grouse," currently being considered for endangered species protection.
ONDA provided before-and-after photos of one stretch of Burnt Car Road, a remote, virtually unused track that runs along one edge of the Blitzen River Wilderness Study Area. The contrast is - without exaggeration - shocking.
The "before" photo shows what looks like a meadow with sagebrush and wildflowers and two barely visible vehicle tracks running through it. The "after" photo shows something that looks like an attempt to recreate the New Jersey Turnpike. The natural vegetation has been obliterated; in its place is a two-lane scraped swath of bare dirt.
Picture 14 miles of this beautiful natural area being raped in this fashion and it's not hard to see why ONDA is furious - and why it's hauling the BLM into court.
A short stretch of the Burnt Car Road "improvement" extends into the Steens Mountain Wilderness Area, a clear violation of law. The BLM says this was done by accident and it's sorry.
But it will be harder to claim that the rest of the 14 miles of road grading was just an "accident" - and to justify why it was done in apparent violation of federal law.
Make that "apparent violations of laws" - ONDA in its lawsuit charges that the BLM broke a slew of them. Among other things, the suit alleges the BLM failed to give public notice of its planned road work and disregarded laws "expressly prohibiting off-road vehicle use and creation of new motorized vehicle routes within the CMPA [Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area] and prohibiting impairment of wilderness values" in Wilderness Study Areas.
ONDA wants the BLM to repair the damage, but it's hard to see how that can be done; once you wreck a natural landscape, it can take decades to return.
ONDA's second objective in filing the suit, according to Executive Director Brent Fenty, is to find out why the BLM went on its road-building spree. It's a question we'd like to hear answered too. Was the BLM hoping to provide better access for birdwatchers? Maybe create some cross-country ski trails for winter visitors?
Whatever the reason, it seems pretty clear that somebody in the Burns BLM office either didn't understand the law or didn't give a damn about it. Either way they deserve, and hereby receive, THE BOOT.