As solution for Muddy Creek Road

by: GREG BURKE - Cathedral Rock rises above the John Day River, the eastern boundary of the proposed wilderness, at sunrise.Access to a proposed wilderness area is once again stirring up controversy, following the release of a letter from adjacent landowners to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden.

In February, after reintroducing legislation to create two new wildernesses — Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven — Wyden asked private landowners to figure out a way to provide roaded access to Cathedral Rock.

The legislation he introduced would create the wildernesses through a widely supported land exchange between the Bureau of Land Management and private landowners. The swap would consolidate property belonging primarily to Young Life Washington Family Ranch and Cherry Creek Ranch by removing islands of federal property.

The Cathedral Rock Wilderness would be located on 8,686 acres straddling the Jefferson and Wasco County line, with access from the John Day River on its eastern border. The 9,400-acre Horse Heaven Wilderness would be located southwest of Cathedral Rock, with two access points for motorists.

The lack of roaded access to Cathedral Rock caused an outcry when the legislation was first introduced in 2011, so the landowners came back with a proposal for a seasonal closure of Muddy Creek Road. The Jefferson County Commission refused to support the road closure.

“It’s the exact same thing they did two or three years ago,” said Commissioner Mike Ahern, noting that property owners somehow negotiated property exchanges that would keep the Muddy Creek Road from touching the Cathedral Rock boundary, which gives the property owners control over roaded access.

When Wyden asked for a solution to allow residents and visitors to use the road to access the wilderness, Ahern said that the property owners reverted back to the gate system they had suggested in 2011.

Under the proposal from Craig Kilpatrick, who represents Young Life, and Matt Smith, manager of Cherry Creek Ranch, the two landowners would install four gates along Muddy Creek Road, which would be totally closed from December through March.

The first gate would be at Gosner Road, near the southern tip of the wilderness area, and the fourth gate, about 8 miles to the northwest, at the Jefferson-Wasco County line.

From April through August, only the southern gates would be open, and from September through November, only the northern gates. Gate keys would be provided “to neighboring property owners, public agencies, emergency services, tribes, and historical societies.”

Young Life and Cherry Creek Ranch offered to construct a trailhead near the current location of the Wagner Mountain trail, but the county would be responsible for the maintenance of the entrance, driveway and parking area.

“I don’t think you create wildernesses to benefit two private landowners,” said Ahern, pointing out that both Young Life and Cherry Creek Ranch benefit from the land swap. “I like the swap; just don’t close the county road.”

The dirt road is the oldest in the county — dating back to the days of the Canyon City gold rush, about 150 years ago, according to Ahern.

Area residents know that the county only grades the road once a year. “There’s no gravel, no culverts; it’s a really primitive road,” he said.

Former Jefferson County Commissioner Rick Allen favors the land exchange, but also wants the road to remain open.

“Based on the proposal, the road would never be open to go from one end to the other; you would always come to a gate and have to backtrack,” he said.

“We’re unanimous not to close the road,” said Ahern, referring to the other two members of the commission. “I’ve never agreed to any vacations or closings (of roads).”

“Cherry Creek is a for-fee hunting ranch,” said Ahern. “They want to lock everyone out in the fall so they can use it as a private hunting ranch. In the summertime, they (Young Life) want it closed for security reasons.”

Allen, who sees considerable benefit to the land consolidation, takes issue with the way the land would be divided around the road.

“If by creating that, you create a moat that locks out the public to a newly created wilderness, you haven’t done them a service,” said Allen. “You’ve reduced access, not increased access.”

As the proposal stands, he said, “(Muddy Creek Road) will have private property on both sides, so you cannot stop your car and leave the road without trespassing.”

Allen doesn’t understand why the BLM would trade away the property that provides access to the wilderness from the road.

“The proposed location of the trailhead is currently owned by the federal government,” said Allen, adding that the property would be part of the trade to Young Life. “It would require an easement across the private property to get to the wilderness. Why not keep the property?”

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