County commissioners oppose adding streams to state scenic waterways list

By Terri Harber March 08, 2013 08:30 am

By Terri Harber

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Baker County commissioners on Wednesday heard concerns from residents about proposed state legislation that would add sections of two local streams to the Oregon Scenic Waterways roster.

Senate Bill 401 would add sections of almost a dozen streams to the Scenic Waterways program, including the North Fork of the Burnt River in southwestern Baker County, and Eagle Creek in the north-central section of the county.

Oregon voters approved the creation of the Scenic Waterways Program in 1970.

It protects what the state government refers to as “the highest and best uses of the waters” within scenic waterways — recreation, fish and wildlife.

The designation affects the area within 1/4 mile on both sides of the stream.

Within that zone, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the Scenic Waterways program, must be notified before such activities as mining, tree cutting, or constructing roads, utilities, railroads and other structures takes place. Activity that could potentially disrupt the free flow of water can’t begin unless the state approves it, or once one year has elapsed after the state accepts the property owner’s notice.

Commissioners, after listening to comments from an irrigator and local miners about SB 401, opted to send a letter to Salem opposing the legislation.

The letter will be directed to the two lawmakers who represent Baker County: Sen. Ted Ferrioli, (R-John Day, Dist. 30), and Rep. Cliff Bentz, (R-Ontario, Dist. 60). 

The proposed Eagle Creek section is described as running from “its headwaters in the Eagle Cap Wilderness downstream to the United States Forest Service boundary.”

The bill would add almost the entire reach of the North Fork Burnt River, from “its headwaters downstream to the Forest Service boundary next to Unity Reservoir.”

The North Fork joins the Burnt River’s other branches at the reservoir.

Lynn Shumway, chairman of the Burnt River Irrigation District, asked commissioners to take a stand against the proposed legislation.

Inclusion of the North Fork Burnt River, particularly, “is not in the best interest in the economy of Baker County,” Shumway said. “It’s a waste of time.” 

Commission Chairman Fred Warner Jr. said he believes the waterways already have “plenty of protection.”

For example, the 29-mile section of Eagle Creek proposed for inclusion on Oregon’s Scenic Waterways list already is protected under the federal Wild and Scenic River Act. Eagle Creek was added to the federal list in 1988.

“I’m opposed to the whole thing,” Ed Hardt, a local miner and former president of the Eastern Oregon Mining Association, said about SB 401. “It’s rotten to the core.”

Another miner, Guy Michael, said the federal Mining Act of 1872 shouldn’t be infringed upon. Miners who work on federal sites would be prohibited from using suction dredges in streams that are part of the Scenic Waterways system, he said.

Commercial mining isn’t allowed at all. Recreational mining also would be affected. Miners in Southern Oregon already have made known their opposition to SB 401.

Shumway also has concerns about how the legislation might affect ranchers who keep or move livestock through these areas, and their water rights. 

Supporters of SB 401 say the bill is necessary primarily because of the substantial influx into Oregon of miners using suction dredges, portable machines that suck gold-bearing gravels from streambeds.

Suction dredging can harm fish habitat, proponents of the bill says.

SB 401 would increase the number of waterways listed to 30. It now stands at 19, though only portions are included — not the entire rivers. And the total percentage of waterways protected would only be 3/5s of one percent if the bill becomes law, according to the Hells Canyon Preservation Council of La Grande.

The Hells Canyon Preservation Council says SB 401 would not affect existing water rights.

State Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland and the sponsor of SB 401, said the number of permits given out for suction dredging in the state has more than doubled in recent years. 

In 2009 the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality gave out 934 permits; in 2012 that number doubled to nearly 2,000.

Bates attributes much of the increased dredging in Oregon to California’s moratorium on the practice. It went into effect in 2009 amid concerns about the effect of suction dredges on fish, especially salmon, as well as on the streambeds and water flowing away from these dredging sites. 

Dredging consists of vacuuming up gravel and silt, removing precious minerals found within it, then redepositing the gravel and silt back into the water.

Miners contend that dredging is good for fish because it adds oxygen to the water and can stir up aquatic insects that fish eat.

“We’re not out there to ruin people’s lives,” Bates said of efforts to curb the effects of dredging, which also include another piece of legislation that he is sponsoring, SB 388. It would require the state Parks and Recreation Commission to choose segments of five waterways for use by the public under pilot project management plans. It would include educating the public and property owners about “best use” of the waterways.

Bates also seeks to increase fees for dredge mining permits.

Bates, along with the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, said the Scenic Waterways system wasn’t designed to limit private property owners’ rights, but rather to require they consult the state before undertaking certain activities along designated streams.

The idea of the Scenic Waterways program is to prompt everyone involved to “think about what they do and what it might mean to other people,” Bates said. “We think this is pretty reasonable.”

And for dredge mining specifically, Oregon would continue to be more wide open than its neighbors.

SB 401 could be revised before it reaches the legislators for a vote. 

“The danger of these bills is in the administrative rules written afterward,” Shumway said. “Unelected people write the rules of how a bill going to administered. It could end up being a bad bill.”

New ‘B’ class noxious weed added to county list

The commissioners designated Bittersweet Nightshade as a Class B noxious weed in Baker County. 

Researchers say in winter the weed nourishes the same psyllid that causes Zebra Chip disease. The potato psyllid can devastate potato crops by making the vegetables become discolored.

Potatoes are a major crop in Baker County, bringing in $12.2 million in gross sales in 2011, the most recent year for which records are available.

Bittersweet nightshade is abundant in the Pacific Northwest, said Arnie Grammon, head of the county’s Weed Department..

Bittersweet Nightshade is in the potato family, but is a trailing or climbing perennial woody vine that could grow up to 10 feet long. It thrives in moist sites. 

Its blossoms cluster together. The berries are green, but bright red when ripe. It flowers in summers with purple leaves that form a star shape and bend backward. The stamen is yellow. 

The entire plant has an unpleasant odor when crushed.

It’s also toxic and experts warn that people should wear gloves and protective gear when handling it.

“B” designated weeds are widespread, of high concern, or both.

In other business, the commissioners:

• Appointed two people to the Greenhorn City Council so the body would have a quorum of three officials. 

A list of 14 interested council candidates was compiled after these people responded to the county’s request for people to appoint. Property owners selected Charles Nathan Wright and Zach Koellermeier. Wright received 13 votes and Koellermeier had 10 votes.

Joyce Pappel was elected in November to the council.

The three will name two more councilors to fill the remaining open seats. 

The people who garnered the most votes among the 12 other candidates are Richard Hoffman with seven and Brooke Myers with six.

Residents also were asked two questions.

When asked if they would like to see Greenhorn be set up as homeowner’s association, 25 people answered “no” while only nine responded “yes.”

And when asked if they would like to see Greenhorn remain incorporated, 26 answered “yes” and nine answered “no.”

• Continued providing non-profit status to Mollie Atwater and Friends Spay/Neuter Fund so it could continue seeking grants and provide donors with a tax deduction.

• Re-appointed Craig Ward and Bill Shumway to the Baker County Weed Board as well as Jan Alexander and Mike Ragsdale to the Natural Resource Advisory Committee.