Deschutes County Commission
Deschutes County Commissioners appear ready to send another set of solutions back to the state land use board of appeals (LUBA) in an attempt to get some farmland, 25 miles southeast of Bend, turned into a basalt aggregate mine. The family that owns the Millican Mine site at Highway 20 near Spencer Wells Road, has been trying for ten years to get the mine dug and opened to sell its highly prized basalt aggregate rock to construction firms and agencies like ODOT which uses it for road construction and maintenance.
Over the years, Deschutes County commissioners have been whittling down the objections of neighboring property owners and BLM grazing land lease holders who believe the mine will be disruptive not only for running cattle but for sage grouse that live in the area.
Great Sage Grouse
Wiki Commons photo
Of late there has been a move to put sage grouse on the endangered species list as a threatened species – something that is being contemplated in other states and which may be done within a year here in Oregon depending on what wildlife biologists come up with. But some natural resources agencies, like U.S. Fish and Wildlife contend that the sage grouse should be considered as a strong candidate for being listed as “threatened” due to widespread degradation of its habitat throughout the West.
Millican Mine site
Against this backdrop the commissioners still maintain that the Millican Mine should move forward and that a half-mile buffer zone around it should soften or eliminate any impact to area sage grouse or cattle grazing. As to whether the mine would prompt the sage grouse to flee the mine area and set up homesteading on that nearby BLM grazing land, the commissioners said they doubt that would happen, but added that no one can predict that. However, the commissioners admitted that if such a thing did occur, it would be up to the county to find ways to mitigate it and to prevent the Bureau of Land Management from cutting back cattle grazing on nearby lands in order to accommodate the bird’s habitat needs.
Paul Dewey, Central Oregon Landwatch (far left)
Sharon Smith, mine owner’s attorney –
“Sage Grouse is off the table.”
At this point a representative from Central Oregon Landwatch joined the discussion admonishing the commissioners to take the sage grouse issue more seriously. Paul Dewey disagreed with the mining company attorney’s assertion that LUBA had laid the sage grouse issue to rest – that it was “off the table” as attorney Sharon Smith claimed. Dewey reminded the commission that a number of state and federal natural resource agencies are investigating whether the sage grouse should become listed as a threatened species. If it becomes listed as threatened, it would make land use planning and land use conflicts, such as the Millican Mine issue, even more difficult. In fact it could make many other land use conflicts across Oregon and the West even more contentious.
Dewey said under the commission’s mitigation plan for the mine, the commission proposed only that sage grouse strutting areas be protected. Dewey said the commission’s rules completely ignore the bird’s nearby nesting and migration corridors. Dewey added that Governor Kitzhaber is relying on counties like Deschutes to make a good case that sage grouse habitat is being properly protected – thereby proving that listing the sage grouse as threatened is not necessary. Dewey strongly inferred that if the current mitigation plan for the Millican Mine is the best the county can do, the commissioners won’t be doing the governor any favors.
County Commission Chair Tammy Baney summoned Community Development Director Nick LeLack to the microphone to ask him to schedule a commission workshop to explore issues like this one as well as other topics related to development of natural resources while minimizing impacts on the environment and wildlife. LeLack said he thinks it’s always a good idea to update county plans and regulations dealing with such issues because natural resources research is constantly evolving and therefore the county should do all it can to keep up with the latest. Commissioner Allen Unger strongly agreed with LeLack adding that land use and natural resource issues should be viewed with an eye to the latest research and best management practices when making important decisions that come before the county commission.
In the meantime Commission Chair Baney and the other commissioners agreed that the owners of the proposed mine deserve, after ten years of waiting, a chance to move forward with their project and that the commission’s 20 conditions applied to the land use change from farmland to mining are adequate. The commission also said LUBA should realize that high quality basalt aggregate is extremely valuable as a resource for construction and road maintenance and that when it’s found in areas where its extraction impacts are minimal, it should be allowed to be mined and therefore benefit the state as a whole.
The commission will discuss the issue further December 15th and make a decision on their mitigation plan and send a written record of that decision and everything that went in to it to the Land Use Board of Appeals on January 30th. Then they’ll wait to hear if LUBA agrees with them.