Thanks a plaintiff for ‘communicating your concerns’
Feb. 10, 2022, update:
By Lee Juillerat for Ashland.news
A proposed project on Forest Road 20, an unpaved road near Mount Ashland, has been canceled.
In a letter sent Thursday, Feb. 10, to Luke Ruediger, one of the plaintiffs in a pending suit against the Klamath National Forest, Forest Supervisor Rachel Smith said work on the project has halted.
Smith wrote, “Please accept my heartfelt thanks for your engagement in this process. Because of your communication, we pored over decades-old aerial photos, sorted through historic Road Logs, and called retirees who last worked on the forest in the 70s and 80s. As a result we have been able to correct our records which erroneously stated that the road was previously paved. It is now evident that the road had been traditionally oiled, and not paved. For this reason, I have directed all forest staff to immediately stop work on this project.”
Ruediger is part of a coalition that includes activist Eric Navickas along with the Klamath Forest Alliance and Applegate Neighborhood Network that said the project was moving ahead on a two-mile portion of Forest Service Road 20 on the south side of Mount Ashland between the Mount Ashland Campground and the Grouse Gap Shelter. The coalition filed a 13-page complaint opposing paving the road with the U.S. District Court in Medford on Feb. 3.
A longer story about the Forest Service’s explanation for the confusion has been posted here.
ORIGINAL POST, February 9, 2022:
Lawsuit filed against Mount Ashland roadwork
Suit claims forest road would be paved; Forest Service calls it ‘routine maintenance and repairs’
By Lee Juillerat for Ashland.news
A plan by Klamath National Forest to upgrade a road in the Mount Ashland area is opposed by two area nonprofit groups, the Klamath Forest Alliance and Applegate Neighborhood Network, and activists Luke Ruediger and Eric Navickas.
The coalition has filed suit in Oregon Federal District Court opposing paving Forest Road 20 on the south side of Mount Ashland. According to the filing, the Road 20 Project, which has received the Forest Service’s approval, would pave gravel roads from the rear parking lot at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area to the historic Grouse Gap Shelter and to the summit of Mt. Ashland.
According to a Sept. 14, 2021, letter by Roberto Beltran, district ranger for the Klamath’s Happy Camp and Oak Knoll Ranger Districts, the proposal seeks “to address routine maintenance and repairs” and does not mention “paving” of Road 20 and other Forest Service roads near Mount Ashland.
In the letter, Beltran said, “I have concluded that this decision may be categorically excluded from documentation in an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).”
The plaintiffs, however, disputes that conclusion, claiming that because the project was proposed for “Categorical Exclusion,” it was approved with no public comment period, virtually no public notification, and inadequate environmental analysis.
The lawsuit asserts the Forest Service did not meet its legal obligations under the NEPA and refers to the effort to “categorically exclude” the project from environmental analysis and public comment as “intentionally misleading” by defining the paving as “routine maintenance.” The lawsuit asks the court to require the Forest Service to either withdraw the project or complete an Environmental Assessment.
“We think the public should have an opportunity to comment on this project, especially due to the extremely high biological, recreational, social and historical values of the Mt. Ashland area,” said Ruediger, the Applegate Neighborhood Network’s executive director and the Klamath Forest Alliance’s conservation director. “We also believe that significant environmental impacts related directly and indirectly to road paving should have been analyzed in an open, transparent public process, and that simply was not done by the Klamath National Forest before approving this project.”
In a news release, the opponents say several extraordinary circumstances “demand the need for further analysis under NEPA and preclude this project from Categorical Exclusion.”
In the filing, the opponents note the roads proposed for repairs, which they term as paving, are parallel to and cross the Pacific Crest Trail, a designated National Scenic Trail. “Road paving would degrade the natural experience and increase traffic along the trail. The proposed paving would also increase access to the Ashland Municipal Watershed where (the) risk of fire and illegal mountain bike trails are already problematic. Additionally, the Mt. Ashland Summit Road is adjacent to and forms the boundary of the McDonald Peak Inventoried Roadless Area.
“Finally, the Grouse Gap Shelter is a CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) era structure and increased use due to easier access needs to be considered as too many local historic structures have seen damage when accessibility is increased,” the opponents’ news release says. (The shelter was actually built around 1970, according to former U.S. Forest Service historian Jeff LaLande. CCC built Road 20 from the ski area to the Applegate Valley in 1936-37, LaLande said.)
The opponents also note the project is also located entirely in the Mt. Ashland/Siskiyou Peak Botanical Area designated by the Klamath National Forest to protect several rare plant species, including Jaynes Canyon buckwheat, Henderson’s horkelia and the world’s only population of Mt. Ashland Lupine.
“Paving the access road to and through this sensitive area will increase foot traffic, disturbance, and degradation of this unique Botanical Area,” according to the filing. “Increased use, unmanaged recreation, roadside parking, user trail creation, and road related erosion have historically impacted these rare plant species, requiring corrective measures by Forest Service officials.”
Opponents to the road development say the impacts were identified in a 2002 Conservation Agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service for the Mt. Ashland lupine and Henderson’s horkelia.
“This document identified conservation measures intended to preclude the protection of these species under the Endangered Species Act and to mitigate or minimize impacts associated with public use, recreation and roads,” the filing says. “The Road 20 Project is inconsistent with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and the conservation measures identified in the 2002 Conservation Agreement.
In the release, former Ashland City Councilor Navickas, a plaintiff in the filing, added, “I am confident we will ultimately prevail in stopping this paving. When the Forest Service takes the hard look at the environmental impacts that are required under the National Environmental Policy Act, the drawbacks will far outweigh any benefits. These are sensitive areas where increased human access can only have detrimental effects. Simply the increased risk of human caused fire in the vicinity of Ashland’s municipal watershed is enough to force a responsible choice.”
The plaintiffs said they notified the Forest Service of their intent to initiate litigation but received no reply. According to the news release, the Applegate Neighborhood Network has also submitted a petition with 250 signatories to the Klamath National Forest, asking that the Road 20 Project be withdrawn.
As of Wednesday, Klamath National Forest officials have so far not responded to requests for comment on the pending lawsuit, but said they hope to by Friday.
Email freelance writer Lee Juillerat at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feb. 9 update: The name of the ranger district was corrected from “Oak Creek” to “Oak Knoll.”
Feb. 10 update: A description in the first paragraph of the two nonprofit groups as “Rogue Valley” nonprofits was removed. Klamath Forest Alliance is based in Orleans, California, in the Klamath River watershed, and Applegate Neighborhood Network, while in the Rogue River watershed, is based in the Applegate Valley. Links were added to the respective organizations’ websites.
Feb. 11 update: Note added about when Grouse Gap Shelter was built, and by who.