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Old 08-25-2003, 01:25 PM   #1 (permalink)
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OR: BLM seeks public comments on North Spit plan

BLM seeks public comments on North Spit plan

By Andrew Sirocchi, Staff Writer

Addressing public skepticism and mistrust over management of North Spit lands, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said it wants to foster transparency as it conducts the first major overhaul of the Coos Bay Shorelands Management Plan in eight years.

The revisions to the plan, which was completed in 1995, will designate the public access areas the BLM will maintain to the popular recreation area and will eliminate management actions that are no longer applicable to the bureau's land holdings.

"The main thing is we want to make sure this is a public process," said Nancy Zepf, a BLM recreation planner. "Whenever you say North Spit and the BLM in the same sentence, it erupts."

"The perception is we've closed the beach," said BLM spokesman Alan Hoffmeister. "In fact, people are working very hard to preserve recreation out here."

The BLM manages approximately 2,000 acres on the North Spit, a destination popular with campers, kayakers, crabbers, off-road-vehicle riders, hikers, surfers and bird watchers. Carved by a network of meandering sand roads, the North Spit is remote enough to give visitors an adventurous feel while being only a few miles north of the Bay Area.

Perhaps because of that easy-to-get-to feel, the BLM has faced sometimes sharp criticism for management activities some see as limiting the ability to recreate on the spit.

Controversy, for example, has temporarily halted a proposed North Spit land swap between the BLM and the Oregon International Port of Coos Bay, highlighting just how contentious land management on the North Spit can be.

The port and BLM had worked for seven years on a deal to exchange 111 acres of land with little industrial value for an 80-acre parcel the port would like to develop. A meeting in Charleston the past week provided a platform for the public to showcase its opposition.

During the meeting, Coos County Commissioner John Griffith called on the port to seek legislative action to have the BLM donate its land rather than exchange for it. Griffith said the county houses 2.4 million acres of federal land designated for timber production but that the federal government has not harvested it.

In similar fashion, many at the meeting were distrustful that the BLM would keep the port's land open to the public if the exchange goes through. The land is key because it provides one access road to several destinations on the North Spit.

International Longshore and Warehouse Union President Marvin Caldera also was recently critical of the port for attempting to enter into a land exchange with the BLM.

"The longshoremen voted ... to object to any land trade-off. We need all the land on the North Spit and hopefully get more," Caldera said, touting the North Spit's potential value as an economic development tool.

Regardless of the exchange, Hoffmeister said the Shorelands Plan will be revised and will not be impacted by whether the port and BLM come to an agreement over the deal.

And despite the most recent public outcry, Zepf and Hoffmeister said most people the bureau has spoken with are content with the bureau's management of the spit and don't want any changes made. They point to those like Jesus Villanueva, a Medford resident who comes to recreate on the spit with his family several times a year, and say their management philosophy has to take into account a variety of sometimes competing recreational activities.

Camped with a group of approximately a dozen family members near the former U.S. Coast Guard base on the bay side of the North Spit, Villanueva said the only negative experience he's ever had on the North Spit is becoming stuck in the sand. Other than working on improving some of the sand roads to the area, Villanueva said he couldn't think of anything the BLM should change.

"We're happy the way it is," Villanueva said, sipping a beer while his children played along the shoreline.

"I think toilets would be one of the good things," he added.

Since 1995, the bureau was able to successfully accomplish 18 of the 30 management goals written into the plan, including formalizing public access through sand roads, monitoring threatened populations of Western snowy plovers and diverting access around sensitive environmental areas while not banning entry altogether.

But Zepf said the plan is outdated, confusing and includes management activities on lands that the BLM does not own. The revisions are intended to "clean up" the 26-page document and give bureau officials a clearer direction on how to manage lands the BLM currently owns.

The BLM has not provided a draft document for comment, in part to allow for the broadest range of opinions to be issued.

"We're not starting with a blank slate out there," Zepf said. "We have a plan but the plan is silent on a few things, for example the boat ramp."

Zepf said the BLM is considering whether the boat ramp should become a more centralized base location for those who visit the spit and could include additional amenities to the parking lot and bathrooms.

Other areas of interest for comment include beach access and the possible addition of more information signs.

Madeleine Vander Heyden, a wildlife biologist for the bureau, said management actions to protect threatened populations of the Western snowy plover that reside on the North Spit will be included in the plan but are not being considered to be changed.

The BLM restricts access to approximately 170 acres in five plover-nesting areas on the spit from March 15 to Sept. 15. Some restrictions are enforced by the BLM on state beaches, which is under the jurisdiction of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, and the BLM's management actions are guided by federal and state regulations for protecting threatened species of wildlife.

Managing the area for recreation while at the same time protecting plovers under the Endangered Species Act has been a challenge, Vander Heyden said, but the BLM is proposing to neither expand nor contract the areas restricted to public use.

"The plan itself is not the vehicle for changing plover management," Vander Heyden said.

Still, Hoffmeister said the BLM recognizes plover restrictions likely will feed the contentiousness of the debate over North Spit management and understands that the bureau has to reverse the perception that the North Spit is being closed off.

"We feel really good about what's happening on the south side of the spit," he said. "Recreation is part of what we'd like to see."

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