ASHLAND, Ore. — UPDATED: Feb 11 at 3:20 pm
A dispute between the Klamath National Forest and local activist groups ended with a positive outcome for all involved parties. Yesterday, Feb. 10, Klamath National Forest withdrew a project that would have paved Forest Service Road 20 on the south side of Mount Ashland.
Forest Supervisor, Rachel Smith, said she spoke with Luke Ruediger of the Klamath Forest Alliance and Applegate Neighborhood Network yesterday to thank him for his continued involvement in public land management, because without the community voicing their concerns, this project would have continued unnecessarily.
“We are pleased by the decision of the Klamath National Forest to withdraw the Road 20 Paving Project," said Ruediger, "but we also believe the decision reinforces our position that all federal land management projects of interest to the public, with meaningful environmental effects, and/or proposed on sensitive federal lands should include a full environmental analysis and public comment period."
Ruediger and former Ashland City Councilor, Eric Navickas filed the suit against the Forest Service on Feb. 3 for failing to complete an Environmental Assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act. The lawsuit was in response to a road paving project that aimed to pave three miles of Forest Service Road 20 on Mt. Ashland, a road that the Forest Service believed had already been paved in past, when it in fact had not.
"I spoke to Luke earlier today, Luke is a long time partner of the Klamath National Forest and I called him to thank him and to apologize." Smith said. "His concern and the concern of others in the community got us digging, so we looked at all of our historical records and I called my two predecessors who were Forest Supervisors before me, and as a result, I was able to confirm that the road has never been paved. The first third of a mile of the road was previously paved, which is what we had believed was the case, but the rest of it was oiled and not paved."
Smith explained that aerial photos of the road demonstrated something that looked very similar to pavement, when it was actually oil build-up. Throughout the 1960's and 1970's, the Forest Service would spray oil across roads as an attempt at dust control and over time the oil would also stabilize the road surface. This practice was later phased out due to environmental concerns, but the oil build-up that was already there had created a crust that was mistaken for old, worn-down pavement.
Thanks to the efforts of Ruediger and these local activist groups, this mistake was discovered and this area of Mt. Ashland that contains numerous rare botanical species and crosses the Pacific Crest Trail, will remain untouched. Ruediger reminds the public that this is their land too and it is up to our communities to speak up when it comes to land management, both for the good of the land and the good of the people.
"His sustained engagement and activism on this was really what prompted me to direct staff to do the research and discover that we were wrong and the project has been halted completely," Smith said.
Smith praises the community for their involvement and believes that it is important for the Forest Service to maintain a continual collaboration and open dialogue with the public.
"The way to influence our government and also public land is to be engaged in public discourse just like this and I think this is a really perfect example of the community speaking its concerns and voicing its concerns," said Smith. "So, I just want to say congratulations and thank you, a heartfelt thank you to the citizens who got involved like this. To me, this is engagement in public land management at its finest."
Another concern that prompted the lawsuit was the increased fire risk that would have accompanied the paved road. With increased accessibility to the Ashland Municipal Watershed comes more people, more campers, and a higher risk of fire danger.
"This is an area that I'm very familiar with, I've recreated many times up there, I'd really like to see it kept in its pristine position," said Navickas. "I have a good understanding of fire risks associated with this, bringing more people into these areas, it's a great concern to the community of Ashland that we keep these areas pristine and free from superfluous risks."
Forest Service personnel have already removed the remaining oil surface from the road, graded it so that it is flat, and laid down gravel to further stabilize it. Smith said she believes the work that was already done on the road prior to the lawsuit actually provided positive improvements because the road is a necessary Forest Service access road for fire and recreation access, as well as the ski resort.
"Mt. Ashland is close to my heart because I grew up in the Ashland area hiking the Mt. Ashland region and it really kind-of instilled a love for this region in me at a young age," Said Ruediger. "So on a personal level, this is very meaningful and, ya know, I'd like to see Mt. Ashland remain the wild, beautiful, biologically diverse area that it is."
The Forest Service Road 20 repaving effort was one of the projects that was funded under the Great American Outdoors Act. There were about a dozen projects across the forest that are funded by the GAOA, and excluding the Forest Road 20 paving, all of the other projects will still continue as they are long overdue maintenance needs.
For further clarification, this portion of Forest Service Road 20 is not part of the Mt. Ashland Ski Area. The entire proposed paving project falls outside of the resort's permitting area.