Wilderness proposal altered
Coffin Rock becomes Cathedral Rock, with no roaded access
Sometime between the original introduction of the proposal for the Cathedral Rock wilderness in 2009, and last year's introduction of U.S. Senate Bill 607, public access was removed, and no one seems to know exactly how it occurred.
When the Jefferson County Commission held a public hearing on the proposal on April 27, commissioners discovered, to their dismay, that the access point was no longer on the map.
As it stands, the wilderness bill would create the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven wildernesses, with a combined total of over 18,000 acres.
When commissioners brought the omission to the attention of Young Life Washington Family Ranch -- one of the key players in the exchange that will create the wilderness -- a Young Life representative said he was not previously aware of the map changes, but viewed them favorably.
"We much prefer 'river only access' as mapped in the current bill, as it ensures greater security and manageability for Young Life's Washington Family Ranch," Rich Ellerd, manager of the Young Life camps at that location, wrote to the commission.
The proposal for the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Young Life, and several ranchers to consolidate their properties through an exchange was first broached in June 2009, by Young Life. The BLM was not involved in discussions with the commission.
"They're not allowed to introduce these proposals or comment on them publicly," explained Aaron Killgore, of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, which has been actively involved in the plans.
"We can approach them and ask for guidance in a very general sense," he said, adding that legislators can call them and ask them directly for their opinion.
In the original proposal, the Cathedral Rock Wilderness was called Coffin Rock, because parcels east of John Day River -- including Coffin Rock -- were part of the proposal.
"It took about two years to go through this process to understand first how it would affect the adjacent landowners, and people in the area," said Killgore. "We also tried to take into account how the public was going to use these areas and how the BLM would manage these areas, and what would be the most efficient way to facilitate this."
For the project to proceed, it has to benefit adjacent landowners, as well as the public, he pointed out.
"We don't want to sacrifice, or put the burden of public access on adjacent landowners," Killgore said. "What's happening now is we have a checkerboard pattern and nobody knows what's public and what's private. The consolidation of these lands dramatically helps that."
As it stands, he said, "Your average day hiker going up to these lands doesn't get a real benefit. When we consolidate, there are thousands of acres that they can enjoy."
The Horse Heaven wilderness proposal, with two access points, was specifically laid out to accommodate people who want roaded access to a wilderness area.
Cathedral Rock, on the other hand, is surrounded by the Muddy Creek Road on the west, and Gosner Road on the south -- both of which are in questionable condition, Killgore said.
"Most drive them with four-wheel drive vehicles, because if you get stuck out on these roads, you have no cell phone access," he said. "The distance to the nearest neighbor can be 10 miles or more."
Asked why the BLM doesn't maintain control of property to access the Cathedral Rock, such as in Section 10, one of the current access points to the Wagner Mountain area, Killgore said that the existing road is user-created, and very rough.
"The biggest advocates for this area are hunters," he said, who don't want a road into the wilderness. "(When there is) less disturbance, that's where the wildlife are going to end up and thrive."
The area also has very few camping sites -- all along the river -- and could be overwhelmed if a road connecting to the area brought many more visitors, he explained.
"Every time we try to negotiate a concern, it has consequences for others," he said. "As much as some folks would like to see access in that area, it does have serious repercussions for other people."
The Cathedral Rock proposal adds nearly four miles of river frontage to the area, which is by far the most common way that the area is visited, he said.
"There's thousands of people that go right by this every year on the John Day River," he said.