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When our ‘public’ roads aren’t


The Ninth U.S. Circuit of Appeals handed down an intriguing ruling recently in a case that involves closing roads to motor vehicles on the Eldorado National Forest in California.

This, obviously, is of more than passing interest to many local residents, as the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest’s controversial Travel Management Plan (TMP) is pending.

The Eldorado National Forest case involves a lawsuit brought against the Forest Service by Public Lands For the People, a nonprofit organization in California, and by several miners.

The plaintiffs contend that the Eldorado National Forest lacked the authority to require miners to file a Notice of Intent or Plan of Operations if they want to continue to drive motor vehicles on roads otherwise closed to such vehicles by that forest’s TMP.

The Appeals Court disagreed.

In her written opinion, Judge M. Margaret McKeown cited a previous federal case which concluded that “there can be no doubt that the Department of Agriculture (of which the Forest Service is part) possesses statutory authority to regulate activities related to mining — even in non-wilderness areas — in order to preserve the national forests.”

McKeown also wrote that the Eldorado forest’s TMP “is not an indirect prohibition on mining operations masquerading as an access regulation, and its access restrictions aren’t unreasonable.”

The judge noted that the TMP doesn’t prohibit miners from accessing their claims — it requires that they get written permission first.

This seems to us an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, but the judge’s conclusion is logical.

The more troubling aspect of her ruling, though, is her endorsement of the Forest Service’s claim that roads closed to motor vehicles by the TMP “are no longer public roads.”

So what are they?

Not private roads, certainly, because they still run across public land.

We understand that the Forest Service, if it can legally decide that a road is no longer public, can also reverse that designation.

Yet we’re disturbed that the second highest court in the land would conclude that, in effect, deleting “public” from any piece of public land is acceptable. A road that’s not public could, in theory, be closed to more than just motor vehicles. The public, for instance.


Reversing course on PERS bills


It’s no secret that Oregon’s public employees retirement system has an unhealthy appetite for the tax dollars that feed state government as well as our cities, counties and school districts.

But the level of PERS gluttony is becoming as painful as, well, a stomachache.

Or a bleeding ulcer.

Last week the PERS board announced that public agencies, starting July 1, 2013, will have to divert an even larger chunk of their budgets to the retirement system.

On average, PERS will account for 21.4 percent of public agency payrolls.

The average figure is higher for school districts — 26.7 percent — and higher still for Baker School District.

Starting in July, the district will spend 29 percent of its payroll dollars on PERS.

To put it another way, almost 3 of every 10 payroll dollars won’t be available to benefit students, whether by hiring new teachers or buying new textbooks.

There is no magical cure to the PERS woes.

Oregon courts have concluded — and rightly so — that pensions negotiated in legally binding contracts with employees must be paid as promised.

We’re not chastising public employees. They worked for their pensions and they earned the money.

The villains are the lawmakers and other officials who created a system that reads more like the Christmas gift list written by a 6-year-old than a reasonable retirement program. Worse yet, many of its authors, including lawmakers and judges, were then allowed to join the system.

The most egregious aspects of PERS — who wouldn’t like a guaranteed 8 percent return on their pension investments regardless of what happens on Wall Street? — were done away with more than a decade ago. The current system, though still more generous than many private sector workers get, is not ridiculously so.

Unfortunately, with tens of thousands of current and retired public employees still covered by the old rules, public agencies will continue to pay for the follies of the past.

Friday’s announcement by the PERS board is merely the latest example.

But the PERS debacle is not absolutely a lost cause.

The Legislature has over the past few sessions considered bills that would reduce the cost of PERS without violating contractual obligations.

A couple examples: trimming cost of living increases, and getting rid of a benefit for retirees who move to another state.

Lawmakers, though, have done nothing of consequence.

With school districts such as Baker’s forced to take ever more dollars out of classrooms to satiate PERS, inaction is not acceptable.

At a minimum, the state should create a committee that has one task: List all the potential options for reforming PERS and hand over the findings to the Legislature when it convenes early next year.

Then public employers, as well as the public in general, should demand that lawmakers do something to reverse the unsustainable trend in government budgets.


A big mess, but it can be cleaned up

By The Baker City Herald Editorial Board

The situation with the Baker School Board, after a brief period of apparent tranquility during the summer, is today worse than ever.

Board member Kyle Knight, who was censured by three of his four colleagues in April, this week filed a civil rights lawsuit in which he seeks at least $700,000 in damages.

The defendants are the Baker School District, its superintendent, Walt Wegener, and board members Lynne Burroughs and Mark Henderson, two of the three members who voted to censure Knight (Andrew Bryan is the third; he is not a defendant).



A golden chance for county?


We don’t doubt that there’s still gold in them thar hills of Baker County.

But whether the precious metal, the quest for which fueled Baker County’s founding, exists in anything approaching abundance in the rock tailing piles of Sumpter Valley is a less certain proposition.

That said, we urge the county’s Planning Commission, which meets Thursday, to amend development rules so the tailings can be tested and that question answered.

The current code allows mining within 2,000 yards of the center of Highway 7.

The amendment the planners will consider Thursday would allow miners to sample other parts of the county’s holdings in the area, which total almost 1,600 acres.

Sumpter Valley’s gravels have been extensively mined, to be sure.

Those tailing piles, which spread over several miles of the valley west of Phillips Reservoir, are the detritus left by gold-mining dredges that churned through the area for the first half of the 20th century.

The dredges — the last of which operated until 1954 and today is the centerpiece of Sumpter Valley Dredge State Park on the south side of Sumpter — were effective but also relatively crude.

Some miners believe the dredges either missed or left behind a significant quantity of gold, and that reprocessing the tailings could yield a financial windfall.

Although a 1982 survey concluded that re-mining the tailings wasn’t worthwhile, the current value of gold — about $1,770 an ounce, compared with 1982’s average of $376 — makes the prospect of finding a readily available source rather more enticing.

The Planning Commission’s decision Thursday is only the first of several steps necessary before digging could commence.

The County Commissioners would also have to endorse the idea, and then issue a request for proposals  from miners interested in testing the tailings.

Various environmental studies and permits would be needed, too.

Yet we’re not dealing here with an open pit mine or similar operation that would dramatically alter the landscape. In Sumpter Valley, the landscape was dramatically altered decades ago.

We’re intrigued by the possibility of reworking the tailings in an environmentally responsible way, creating jobs and, potentially, putting money into county coffers through royalties or other fees.


OTEC and options


We don’t object to Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative replacing its customers’ analog power meters with digital “smart” meters.

But neither are we convinced that OTEC, the Baker City-based cooperative that has about 30,000 customers in Baker, Union, Grant and Harney counties, couldn’t design a feasible system by which people could, probably for a fee, choose to keep their old meter.

The controversy over smart meters has grown exponentially over the past couple years as tens of millions of dollars in grants from the 2009 federal stimulus bill have enticed utilities to install hundreds of thousands of the devices nationwide.

(OTEC didn’t use any public dollars to put in its smart meters.)


Lamp laments

By the Baker City Herald Editorial Board

We suspect it’s a lot easier to like the Leo Adler Memorial Parkway (LAMP) if you don’t live next to it.

John Harmer would no doubt agree.

Harmer sent us an email this week. He lives on Madison Street, and his home is beside LAMP, the paved path that parallels the Powder River through much of Baker City.



Timber deal could help here


The deal announced last week that will at least temporarily keep the saws spinning in Grant County’s last lumber mill could help Baker County, too.

But not necessarily in a purely economic sense.

We certainly hope that the template unveiled for the Malheur National Forest, which is mostly in Grant County and a vital source of logs for Ochoco Lumber Co.’s Malheur Lumber mill in John Day, can be replicated on our local Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

But we doubt that would resurrect Baker County’s lumber industry, which crumbled when Ellingson Lumber Co. closed its Baker City mill in 1996.

Although the Forest Service has pledged to increase the amount of timber cut on the Malheur, and to maintain a minimum supply over the next several years, the amounts, were they matched or even slightly exceeded on the larger Wallowa-Whitman, probably aren’t sufficient to justify the multimillion-dollar investment to open a new mill.

That said, we’re intrigued by the Forest Service’s newfound commitment to dealing more aggressively with the problems plaguing significant swathes of the Malheur.

Those problems, which include forests with too many trees per acre, and in some places firs growing where ponderosa pines and tamaracks used to predominate, exist on the Wallowa-Whitman as well.

Such forests are vulnerable to insects and diseases, and to the destructive wildfires that so often follow.

The Forest Service has been whittling away at this challenge for the past 20 years or so. On both national forests (as well as the Umatilla, the third of the Blue Mountain forests), much of the logging that has happened during that period has involved thinning overcrowded forests or removing encroaching firs.

The main obstacle to this effort has not been legal obfuscation by environmental groups, but Congress’ failure to give the Forest Service the money it needs. Unlike historic timber sales, when Forest Service offers were comparatively flush with receipts from auctioning valuable old growth ponderosa pines, these modern “commercial thinning” projects often require significant subsidies of public dollars to pencil out.

Regional Forester Kent Connaughton acknowledged as much in a recent letter he wrote to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Connaughton noted that although the Forest Service’s goals for the Malheur in 2015 include working on 30,000 acres, yielding 75 million board-feet of timber, the agency will need to allocate almost $4 million.

That money’s not in the bank.

The Forest Service has set aside $2.5 million for the Malheur, though.

That’s a good start.

If that money becomes, in effect, the bucketful that primes the federal pump, then public forests across the Blue Mountains and the thousands of people who use them every year, stand to benefit as their favorite places are less likely to burn.


Welcome price trend


You might have noticed an unfamiliar sound in your home this week.

A sort of background hum, soft but consistent.

Your furnace, which has had quite a nice vacation,was awakened from its summer slumber by the first chilly mornings of impending autumn.

For many people, the welcome warmth of air exhaling from grates is tempered by the knowledge that heat isn’t cheap.

But for local residents who rely on natural gas to ward off winter’s chill, it is at least cheaper.

Or soon will be, anyway.

Cascade Natural Gas, which has several hundred customers in Baker City, has filed a request with the Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC) to trim its rates by 17.42 percent for residential customers. Cascade proposes cuts of 20 percent to 22 percent for commercial and other customer groups.

The PUC, we’re confident in saying, won’t say no when it considers Cascade’s application in late October.

(The agency is more inclined to balk at requests to increase rates.)

The reduced rates will take effect Nov. 1.

We’re not talking about a windfall, of course.

Cascade estimates that a typical residential customer will save about 10 bucks a month.

Still and all, with gasoline pushing $4 a gallon, and food prices expected to rise substantially due to the Midwest drought, knowing that the next cold snap won’t siphon quite so much from your budget is not cold comfort.


A healthy crop of candidates


Turns out we needn’t have fretted about Baker City residents lacking interest in serving their community.

When the deadline to file as a City Council candidate passed on Aug. 27, the list of names was lengthy — gratifyingly so.

Nine people are vying for the four seats on the seven-member council that will be filled in the Nov. 6 election.

That number adds an element of competition to the election that would be absent were there, say, just four candidates. And competition, besides giving voters a true choice, tends to lead to more robust debates about which issues the City Council should concentrate on over the next few years.

The roster of candidates includes Milo Pope, one of the two incumbents eligible to run for re-election.

Incumbents Sam Bass and Beverly Calder are precluded from running due to the term limits clause in the city charter.

The fourth incumbent, Aletha Bonebrake, is eligible but she declined to run due to time commitments with her work as a library consultant.

The nine candidates offer voters a variety of choices.

There are, in addition to the incumbent, Pope, a pair of former Baker City Council members in Richard Langrell and Terry Schumacher.

Kyle Knight is a current member of the Baker School Board, and Mike Downing has served as an pro tem Justice of the Peace for Baker Justice Court.

Jack Turner is the former publisher of the Baker City Herald. Kimberley Mosier is a former deputy district attorney in Baker County. Barbara Johnson is a member of the group Concerned Citizens of Baker City, which successfully lobbied the City Council to pass a resolution supporting the overturning of the Citizens United case regarding political campaign contributions. R. Mack Augenfeld is a retired businessman who has a master’s degree from Fordham University.

An intriguing group, to be sure.

We expect to learn more about the candidates’ ideas for the city’s future over the next several weeks, including at the American Association of University Women-sponsored candidates forum set for Oct. 8 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Baker High School Commons, 2500 E St.

Information about the candidates is available on the city’s website, www.bakercity.com, and the Herald will publish a voters guide next month.


Flier lacks one key detail


The flier that recently arrived in local mailboxes, bearing the headline “Meet your 5J School Board members,” probably confused more than a few recipients.

It had us a bit perplexed, at least initially.

Maybe it was the drawing of an archetypal school, complete with a belfry, that led us to believe the document was an official publication of the Baker School District.

The pamphlet certainly resembled, and more than superficially, other correspondence the district has mailed to its patrons in recent years.

Turns out we were mistaken.

School Board Chair Lynne Burroughs, who along with board member Mark Henderson is featured in the flier (don’t be misled by that “meet your board members” — you only really meet two of the five), said she produced and paid for the publication.

Burroughs told the Herald that her three sons donated $2,000 for the project.

Trouble is, nothing in the pamphlet suggests that it was created completely independent of the school district.

It would be quite reasonable, in fact, for a patron to assume that either tax dollars, or school district employees’ time, or publicly owned equipment, or all three, were used to produce the flier.

A simple explanatory paragraph noting that the district was not involved in the publication, and that the opinions expressed were those of Burroughs and Henderson and not the board as a whole or the school district, would have answered those questions — indeed, would have largely prevented them from being asked.

The absence of such an explanation is unfortunate because some of the content in the pamphlet should not be associated, even mistakenly, with a public school district.

Burroughs, for instance, contends that board member Kyle Knight, whose censuring by the board this spring prompted the current campaign to try to recall Burroughs and Henderson, has broken state labor and ethics laws, and violated no fewer than four amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Were this cavalcade of claims completely true, we would think Knight would be facing more serious consequences than his current censure status.

Burroughs and Henderson both denied to the Herald that the pamphlet’s purpose is to convince voters not to back the recall campaign.

Burroughs said her goal was to explain why she supported the censure of Knight.

Henderson said he was responding to questions from patrons about what his goals are for the district.

We don’t doubt the veracity of either statement.

But it’s silly for the two to argue that the flier has nothing to do with the recall.

In the second paragraph of Burroughs’ statement she notes that she is “enduring a second attack by Kyle Knight to recall me...”

Henderson writes: “Quit playing politics” and urges patrons to “consider carefully the effect your signature and vote may have...”

The “signature” in question obviously refers to the petition sheets being circulated by proponents seeking to put a recall on the ballot.

We have yet to receive a satisfactory answer from the Oregon Elections Divisions about whether Burroughs or Henderson needs to form a political committee and keep track of monetary donations and expenditures related to the flier.

But even if such filings aren’t legally required, the pair have an obligation to their constituents to explain explicitly when they are acting as individual board members — which of course is their right — and when they are representing not only themselves but the school board, and district, as well.


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