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Commission conditionally approves wilderness proposals

Bill pending in U.S. Senate

by: Photo by Holly M. Gill - Aaron Killgore

Two proposed wilderness areas in northern Jefferson County received the go-ahead from the County Commission May 25 -- with one condition.
   Commissioners want public access put back in the Cathedral Rock Wilderness Area proposal, which had public access when a major land exchange was first proposed by the Young Life Washington Family Ranch nearly two years ago.
   "I for one am emphatically, unequivocally opposed to not having access," said Chairman Mike Ahern. "I want (the exchange) to happen in the worst way, but I'll do anything to not let it happen if there's no public access."
   Under terms of the proposal, Young Life and two ranches would exchange land with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to create the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven wilderness areas, which comprise over 17,000 acres.
   The exchange allows the landowners and federal government to consolidate land holdings that had been distributed in a checkerboard fashion.
   According to Aaron Killgore, coordinator of the John Day area of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, the public gains more than 1,600 acres of BLM land that is accessible by road, and 7,500 acres that is accessible by the John Day River.
   The parties involved considered ways to reduce conflicts and maximize benefits to adjacent landowners, while providing more public access to the river, he said.
   "Look at it in its entirety and judge it on its merits," Killgore suggested.
   Commissioner Wayne Fording said that the commission understands the benefits of consolidating the properties, but added, "The first map showed access. We understand it's a process; everyone gives and takes."
   Fording and Ahern expressed concern that the only access to the Cathedral Rock area would be by river. "Some people don't have a raft," said Fording. "They just want to go for a hike. I think this access issue is something that needs to be dealt with."
   Killgore noted that Horse Heaven, located southwest of the Cathedral Rock area, will have two access points, but many organizations, including the Oregon Hunters Association, are excited that the Cathedral Rock area will have limited access.
   Speaking as a private citizen, Jay Olson, county fire chief, said he has hunted both areas, and the Cathedral Rock area isn't well suited for day hikes. "It's almost like mountain climbing," he said.
   As a landowner in the area, Olson worries that if the exchange isn't made, there is the potential for kids at the Young Life camp to be injured by hunters. "It's not a matter of `if'; it will happen sooner or later," he said.
   "If this plan fails because of this one sticking point, who's going to pick up the ball and run with it?" asked Olson, who assists with Young Life's fire and safety programs. "A lot of people will be disappointed."
   Big public benefit
   Matt Smith, who owns Cherry Creek Ranch, is one of two ranchers involved in the exchange. He hopes that the bill remains as presented. "It's obviously a big public benefit to the public as it is," he said.
   Smith's family purchased the 40,000-acre ranch -- located in Jefferson and Wheeler counties -- in 1986. The proposed Cathedral Rock Wilderness Area is on the west side of the Wild and Scenic John Day River, across from the recently created Spring Basin Wilderness.
   Access to the Cathedral Rock area would be through the Smiths' ranch. "There's not a bunch of benefit to us in terms of land exchange," said Smith. "We want to see our neighbors to the north -- Young Life -- reap this benefit, but we don't want to be hurt in the process."
   Smith said that a significant number of people use the Muddy Springs Road, which is aptly named when weather turns cold and wet. During hunting season, Smith saw 63 vehicles on one day.
   "We literally follow vehicles through the ranch during hunting season," he said.
   The commission discussed the possibility of having the road open during the summer, but closing it for the winter.
   "We don't want to negotiate on public access," said Ahern, who moved to support the wilderness proposal with one access point at Muddy Springs Road, which would be closed during the winter. Fording and Ahern supported the motion, and Commissioner John Hatfield voted against it.
   It is unclear what effect the vote will have on a bill pending before the U.S. Senate (S. 607), which will create the two wilderness areas as proposed, and open public access to four additional miles of riverfront on the John Day River.