Environmentalists seek halt to road work

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SALEM, Ore. (AP) — An environmental group has asked a judge to block a federal agency from clearing 133 miles of washed out or overgrown roads on public land in Eastern Oregon without doing an environmental analysis.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association said in its lawsuit that the roads have been naturally reclaimed and are of no use, the agricultural publication Capital Press reported Friday.

Public officials and ranchers counter that the roads are needed to manage livestock and for other reasons.

The lawsuit challenges what it calls "landscape-scarring mechanical blading, grading, reconstruction and improvement" of the roads. It said the work introduces invasive weeds, fragments habitat, and harms water quality along stream crossings.

The suit also says the work would allow motorized access within the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's 500,000-acre Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area.

The lawsuit said the agency excludes such maintenance from processes required by federal environmental law but claims it has failed to show the impact of the projects is insignificant.

The agency didn't have an immediate comment on the suit, but public officials and ranchers did.

Harney County plans to intervene in the suit, said Steve Grasty, leader of the county commission. The roads are needed for livestock maintenance and fire response, he said, adding that the work appears to be normal maintenance.

Roads on public lands are critical for ranchers and others in remote areas of Eastern Oregon, said Bob Skinner, chairman of the public lands committee of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association.