Commission takes no action on closure proposal

by: Photo by Greg Burke - Cathedral Rock rises above the John Day River, the eastern boundary of the proposed wilderness, at sunrise.

   For the second meeting on a proposal for a seasonal closure of Muddy Creek Road, more than twice as many people crowded into the Jefferson County Commission's meeting room Sept. 14.
   With legislation to create two new wilderness areas pending before the U.S. Senate, the commission has been considering its options for the county road, which passes near the western border of the proposed Cathedral Rock wilderness in northeastern Jefferson County.
   Under terms of the legislation, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Young Life Washington Family Ranch, and other private ranches would exchange land to consolidate holdings.
   The legislation would create the Cathedral Rock Wilderness on 8,686 acres, with no roaded access, and the Horse Heaven Wilderness on 9,400 acres, with two public access points. Cathedral Rock would be accessible along nearly 10 miles of the John Day River.
   Representing Young Life's Washington Family Ranch, Craig Kilpatrick, who requested the second public meeting, pointed out that many had commented on the fragile condition of Muddy Creek Road, which runs through the eastern side of the ranch.
   "We believe a seasonal agreement will reduce these problems," he said. If the county agreed to a seasonal closure, Young Life planned to create a trail head from the road into the Cathedral Rock Wilderness.
   Also with Young Life, Steve Atkinson, of Portland, said that the organization has invested $28 million over the past two years in a second camp on the ranch, which has 15 employees and their families living there full time.
   "I'd like to think we're an asset to the community," he said.
   The land exchange and seasonal road closure will help make the camps safer for the 12,000 or so youths who visit the camps each year, Atkinson pointed out.
   Dave Dixon, of Antelope, asked why the Cathedral Rock proposal didn't include a connection to a county road. "All they had to do was set 40 acres aside," he said.
   Currently, the road passes over BLM property in several locations, but those parcels are being traded as part of the proposal.
   "We need that road -- not only the ranchers, but the people that float the river, people that want to go for a ride," he said.
   Ashwood rancher Thomas Ledbetter expressed his opposition to the seasonal closure. "It takes one more freedom away from us," he said. "Not many people travel that road in the wintertime anyway."
   The owner of Cherry Creek Ranch, Matt Smith, explained that the road agreement, which is not included in the legislation, was a compromise to accommodate the commission.
   "We're not trying to keep anyone out that's trying to come through there," he said, noting that ranchers could have access to the road, with a combination lock on a gate during the seasonal closure.
   Madras resident Lyle Rehwinkel said he has spent 35 years recreating on the John Day River, and doesn't want to see a gate on the road.
   "You've got to have an access point," he said. "We're not going to have access unless the Washington family grants us access. If it's that sincere, give us a 40-acre piece."
   "It's private property on both sides," he said, suggesting that the Bureau of Land Management is working for the landowner, rather than in the public's interest. "Young Life right now has the big stick."
   Tom McDonald, of Madras, who owns property in the Ashwood area, likened the Cathedral Rock Wilderness to a hotel without a door. "It's beautiful, but we can't get in," he said. "I would have thought they would have thought about the door when they were building these plans."
   Jim Nartz, of Ashwood, read from the minutes of the commission's Oct. 14, 2009, meeting, when Forrest Reinhardt, a former youth pastor for Young Life, was representing the ranch, and said that the public would have access to the wilderness.
   "I don't think anyone would construe floating down the John Day as public access," he said.
   Regarding a seasonal closure, Nartz said there are half a dozen other county roads that are just as bad. "Yeah, it can get muddy, but when it freezes up, there's no reason to keep you from driving over it," he said.
   Cora Murphy, who lives on Gosner Road, which butts up against the southern end of the Muddy Creek Road, said that children aren't at the ranch from December through April, when Young Life and Muddy Creek Ranch had proposed a seasonal closure.
   "It should be a moot issue," she said, adding that she is against the land swap.
   The president of the Jefferson County Historical Society, Jerry Ramsey, who also wants the road to remain open, provided some history of the road, noting that it runs along The Dalles Military Road, and draws people from around the country who are interested in artifacts and "amazingly vivid Indian pictographs," to the north.
   Commission Chairman Mike Ahern said that he appreciated all the testimony. "I'm frankly not interested in gating or closing the road. Just leave it like it is," he said, noting that he didn't want to take any action on the matter.
   Commissioner John Hatfield, who was also opposed to closing the road, suggested that concerned citizens write to their congressmen.
   "I would rather see deeded access than an easement," he said. "We're not done, but we're done with the road issue."
   Commissioner Wayne Fording agreed that the commission's concern is that there should be roaded access. The commission allowed the proposed seasonal closure to die.
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