Commission drafts scathing letter


In response to landowner suggestions

by: GREG BURKE - Cathedral Rock rises above the John Day River, the eastern boundary of the proposed wilderness, at sunrise.In their ongoing effort to ensure land access to a proposed wilderness, Jefferson County commissioners have drafted a sharply worded letter to Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, who have introduced legislation that will create the Cathedral Rock Wilderness.

The County Board of Commissioners, which will discuss the issue Wednesday, April 24, at 9:30 a.m., in the commission meeting room, has concerns that the proposed legislation will have a negative effect on county residents and taxpayers.

“This issue has turned into a gerrymandered quagmire not by design of Jefferson County,” the letter notes. “We need not remind you that Jefferson County supported the original proposal (2009) that provided public access from the Muddy Creek Road.”

The letter refers to the first proposal brought to the County Commission in 2009 by Young Life Washington Family Ranch and Cherry Creek Ranch to trade property with the Bureau of Land Management, in order to eliminate islands of federal property among their holdings and create two federal wildernesses: Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven.

Cathedral Rock (formerly Coffin Rock) would have included over 8,000 acres bordered by the John Day River on the east, Young Life on the west, and Cherry Creek Ranch on the south, with two potential access points: from Muddy Creek Road on the west, or Gosner Road on the southern tip. Horse Heaven, located southwest of Cathedral Rock, included about 9,400 acres, also with two access points.

When Wyden and Merkley introduced the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven Wilderness Act of 2011, the new map showed that Cathedral Rock access points currently owned by the BLM were to be traded away to the private property owners. Access to the wilderness was strictly by water, which angered many area residents. The county withdrew its support for the proposal unless it included roaded access.

In February, Wyden and Merkley reintroduced the proposal as part of the Oregon Treasures Act of 2013, which includes preservation of over 100,000 acres of wilderness around the state. They also sent a letter to Young Life and Cherry Creek Ranch asking the property owners to seek a solution that provides access.

The solution, presented in March by the landowners, suggested a series of gates and seasonal closures of Muddy Creek Road, which would never be fully open.

“If the land exchange occurs in the manner you have sponsored, it will be an injustice to the public. Future generations will be permanently and purposefully locked out of reasonable, fair, and easily attainable access to federal land,” the letter notes. “We absolutely believe the benefits of consolidating federal land do not outweigh the irrevocable long-term lockout of denying the public access to Cathedral Rock Wilderness from Muddy Creek Road.”

The letter points out that the landowners’ proposal is basically the same unacceptable proposal they presented in 2011 — closing the road to through traffic — a move that has never taken place in the 150 years it has existed.

The commission notes that the proposal adds burdens for county taxpayers, including perpetual maintenance of four gates, fences, a parking lot and trailhead, and route closure sign, as well as keeping track of gate keys assigned to area property owners. Under the proposal, the county would have to install and maintain guardrails and an emergency telephone system, as well.

After two public meetings on Sept. 7 and 14, 2011, the letter notes, “The overwhelming response opposed the county entering into any agreement that closes the Muddy Creek Road.”

“Just to be clear, Jefferson County does not demand a parking lot, trailhead, or trail be constructed. Construction of these amenities should be based upon federal priorities and the future allocation of federal funds,” the commission wrote.

“Until Jefferson County is presented with a ‘genuine’ and ‘gracious’ proposal that includes permanent federal ownership of land that is adjacent to Muddy Creek Road and contiguous to the wilderness boundary, we are unable to have a meaningful discussion about seasonal (road/weather conditions) closures,” the letter concluded.