Environmentalists appeal Steens Mountain project

Posted: Wednesday, July 05, 2000

FRENCHGLEN, Ore. (AP) -- An environmental group is asking land use officials to halt construction of a controversial career school in a remote area on Steens Mountain.

The Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association says the facility would be a tourist resort, and late last month asked the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals board to stop the project.

John and Cindy Witzel of Frenchglen began excavating the site of a proposed school building in early June, and say 19 cabins eventually will follow. They expect to invest $1 million.

The appeal prevents them from starting construction until a final decision is made, said Richard Jennings, Harney County planning director.

The Witzels, who own 320 mountain acres, originally applied in Harney County for a zone change to permit construction of a 25-room tourist lodge and cabins. Harney County's governing board of commissioners in Burns turned down the request in November 1997.

But the Witzels changed their application and won approval on June 7, arguing that Oregon land-use laws permit public and private schools on exclusive farm-use land.

No rezoning was needed on the site, 16 miles east of Frenchglen and 5 miles from +Fish+ Lake.

''It's been called a loophole around the lodge,'' said John Witzel. ''It's not a loophole.''

He envisions the career school combining the best features of the High Desert Museum in Bend and the outdoor program of a community college.

''Let's be totally honest, this is a resort,'' said Bill Marlett of Bend, president of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. ''If you like trophy homes in all your wild places, then vote for the Steens-Witzel resort.''

Cindy Witzel says the school is not a resort.

''Every single thing we do has a developed curriculum, an overall program focus, and will be able to be applied to our outdoor guide training program,'' she said.

The Witzels' land is a short distance from the scenic Steens Mountain Loop Road, which attracts about 53,000 visitors between June 30 and Nov. 1 each year. The Witzels said the school would be out of sight of traffic on the road.

About 200,000 acres on and around Steens Mountain are administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, while roughly 40,000 acres remain in private holdings, according to BLM figures.

Members of Oregon's congressional delegation have been working to craft legislation to better protect the Steens area and to head off federal monument designation by President Clinton.

John Witzel, who wants to finish the career school by 2001, said it will have 14 rooms, instead of 25, and will include classrooms, laboratories, private study areas, a kitchen and a cafeteria.

Courses will target public school teachers as well as people wanting to become professional outfitters and guides, and classes already have begun for outfitters and guides, he said.

Course work will include botany, astronomy and other academic subjects taught by a revolving educational staff of university professors and other experts.

Individual courses will extend from half a day to six weeks.

The cabins will be necessary to house both students and instructors because of the area's remote location, he said.

''Once this is said and done, people are going to see this is a very good facility,'' he said.

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