Muddy Creek: Debate over historic road
The county is involved in an inspired agreement between federal and private landowners that would create two wilderness areas in northeastern Jefferson County.
The agreement would create two publicly owned wilderness areas near the John Day River -- the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven wilderness areas -- totaling 17,000 acres. It would entail transferring several thousand acres of Bureau of Land Management property now checker-boarded throughout private property, into the ownership of the surrounding private owner. It's a win-win situation. The private landowners make their land contiguous and unbroken and the public gets two wilderness areas to call its own.
That, however, is the easy part. Access to those wilderness areas, and the area in general, through what would be exclusive private property, that's the sticking point.
The Young Life Washington Family Ranch, a Christian-based organization that purchased the former Rancho Rajneesh (deeper historically, the Big Muddy Ranch), is the largest of the private landholders involved in the swap. The Muddy Creek Road -- which runs from State Highway 218 near Antelope to Gosner Road, which runs east and west from Ashwood to the John Day River -- runs right through their property.
Now that there is no BLM land in the vicinity, Young Life interests would like to see the road closed, or least seasonally closed.
But the idea of closing the Muddy Creek Road doesn't sit well with many residents of the general area in question -- most with ties to the area that stretch for decades, if not a century. And it shouldn't sit well with the public in general.
Caught in the middle: the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners. The road closure aspect is entirely up to them.
There are logical reasons to close this road -- enhanced safety for the hundreds of young people who may be on that ranch at any time, plus road maintenance during the wet winter season. But there are over-riding issues that should convince the county to keep the road open.
As the name clearly indicates, the right of the public to use a public road, even if it runs through private country, should be maintained. If the road stopped, dead-ended at the private property, that might be a different story, and the argument for closure much stronger. But this particular road runs through the property, and connects with Gosner Road, which goes down to the John Day River and eventually hooks up with a well-maintained Wheeler County road that takes travelers to pavement, U.S. Highway 26 and the Mitchell area.
While more late-coming county residents with little knowledge of the remote northeast section might wonder why anyone would fuss over this dirt road, to the longtime residents of the Ashwood-Antelope country, the swath of road is one of life's precious highways.
What's more, the Muddy Creek Road runs through sacred ground for history buffs.
Local historian Jerry Ramsey noted that it's a remnant of the The Dalles Military Road, the first major wagon road to cut through what would be Jefferson County, tying the pioneer towns of The Dalles and John Day.
In the same spirit in which the wilderness areas are being created -- to allow the public into that rugged, wonderful country -- access on that historically rich road, through that countryside, should be maintained.
Certainly closing a public access road isn't without precedent. A few years back, the county approved the seasonal closure of a road into the Grizzly area -- which could take travelers all the way to Prineville -- namely because it ran through country exclusively owned by the Ochoco Lumber Co. and they made convincing arguments for closure.
More recently, the county closed a public access road that ended at the property of Phil Knight's home south of the Crooked River. But that small slice of dirt wasn't a through road, it stopped at his property, and had no historical significance.
It's hard to blame those who own a significant amount of land for wanting the old country road closed. It's human nature, isn't it, to want that isolation, that protection, that security that your money bought? The expansive R2 Ranch addresses its private property issues by putting no trespassing signs seemingly ever 20 feet. I guess the Youth Ranch could follow that lead.
With so many children in their midst at any time, safety for them is justly a major concern for Young Life. But, it is, of course, the organization's responsibility. Certainly the testimony to the commissioners about impromptu interrogation that ranch employees have reportedly bestowed upon passing-by residents is unnerving, especially in light of the ranch's Rajneesh history.
There's also little doubt that some knuckleheads without respect for private land, the wonderful countryside, or the somewhat fragile dirt road that brought them there, can cause problems large and small. It's hard to blame large landholders from wanting road control, and hard to tolerate yahoos that shoot up or tear up private property.
But even with those factors in the mix, closing public access roads should be rare events. Closing the historic Muddy Creek Road should not occur.
I'm not sure anything but a winter closure would make Young Life satisfied, and I doubt the surrounding longtime residents would even be thrilled with that compromise. There is strong pressure from both the private and public interest on the commissioners. They should lean toward the public when it comes to this historic dirt road.