Round two for Steens Mountain development

 

OREGON -- In southeastern Oregon, a couple has come up with a new approach for developing the 160 acres they own on Steens Mountain, the massif that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is eyeing for federal protection as a national monument (HCN, 11/22/99: Go tell it on the mountain).

This time, John and Cindy Witzel, who own Steens Mountain Packers, propose to build a school for outfitters and packers. According to documents filed with Harney County, the school would include 19 cabins, a dormitory, cafeteria, two libraries and administrative space.

In 1997, the couple proposed a 25-room lodge, gift shop and restaurant, but withdrew their request for a change in county zoning when public opposition swelled.

"The politics weren't looking so good, so we withdrew our application," says John Witzel. Opponents, such as Friends of Oregon, said the 30-mile-long basalt mountain should be kept free of commercialization and overgrazing by cattle.

Bill Marlett, director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, called the latest development proposal a "totally transparent" attempt to get around zoning constraints.

In a letter to Harney County planners, the owners said that their proposed school was subject neither to zoning approval nor a conditional use permit. They cited an Oregon statute stipulating that schools are an "outright allowed use" on agricultural land.

Marlett said to protect the mountain from development, an "overarching designation" was crucial. Mary Healey, spokeswoman for Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, R, disagreed. She said as long as owners go through the appropriate process, "Sen. Smith believes those of us in Washington, D.C., shouldn't be telling people in Oregon what to do with their land."

Marlett said to protect the mountain from development, an "overarching designation" was crucial. Mary Healey, spokeswoman for Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, R, disagreed. She said as long as owners go through the appropriate process, "Sen. Smith believes those of us in Washington, D.C., shouldn't be telling people in Oregon what to do with their land."

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Jim Witty

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