Cathedral Rock proposal draws more testimony


Area residents, conservation group representatives discuss plan

by: HOLLY M. GILL - David Eddleston, of Friends of Oregon Badlands Wilderness, testifies in support of legislation that would create the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven wildernesses in Jefferson County.After drafting a letter criticizing the idea of creating a wilderness that would add to Jefferson County taxpayers' burden, the County Commission invited additional testimony on the subject of the Cathedral Rock Wilderness April 24.

About 30 area residents filled the commission's chambers, including Matt Smith, owner of Cherry Creek Ranch, which has been involved in the plan to exchange property with the Bureau of Land Management to consolidate holdings and create two wilderness areas: Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven.

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have introduced the Oregon Treasures Act of 2013, which would preserve over 100,000 acres of wilderness around the state, including the 8,322-acre Cathedral Rock Wilderness along the John Day River in northeastern Jefferson County, and the 8,974-acre Horse Heaven Wilderness to the southwest.

In their letter, commissioners said they do not support the proposal by surrounding landowners Young Life Washington Family Ranch, on the west side of Cathedral Rock, and Cherry Creek Ranch on the south side. The landowners had proposed a series of gates on Muddy Creek Road, which would prevent the public from having unrestricted access to the 150-year-old road, and require the county to maintain gates, fences, a parking lot, trailhead and road closure sign, as well as keep track of gate keys assigned to local landowners.

The commission also stated that "permanent federal ownership of land that is adjacent to Muddy Creek Road and contiguous to the wilderness boundary" would be required in order to discuss seasonal road closures.

Smith countered that federal land touching the road, as it does now near Wagner Mountain, would be a dealbreaker. "We don't see a way to live with that."

"The idea for seasonal closure came from you guys," Smith reminded the commission. "It was a great idea that we expanded on. We're not trying to close the road; we're trying to accommodate landowners."

Using the road as a boundary to the wilderness is impractical, he pointed out, since it would cost the BLM about $1.5 million in survey costs.

With the extra traffic on the road, he said, "The fear is it would make enough of a burden (on landowners) that it would make the burden too big."

In a letter signed by Smith and Craig Kilpatrick, land use consultant for Young Life, who was not at the meeting, they said they would continue to work to find a reasonable access solution. "The landowners remain optimistic that a workable plan can be formed that will consider the needs of both the landowners and the county."

Brent Fentry, of the Oregon Natural Desert Assocation, which has been working with the county and landowners on the wilderness proposal, said it was "heartening to hear such widespread support for the basic idea of land consolidation."

Fentry said that 10,000 boaters a year float that stretch of the John Day River, and would have access to the wilderness. "ONDA wouldn't support this in any way if we didn't think the public would benefit."

Commission Chairman Wayne Fording said that he sees the benefit of consolidation, but "It blows me away that the wilderness is 200 feet from the road and you can't get there."

As the proposal stands, the BLM would give the access parcel to Young Life, as part of the exchange, and the road would remain open.

"If it went through today and the road stayed open, I'm not going to lose any sleep, but I think there should be access," said Fording.

Ken Ledbetter, of Ashwood, said he would "just as soon not mess with any of that. Leave it the way she is."

Tom Ledbetter, also of Ashwood, expressed concern that gates would hinder firefighting efforts. "If I can't get there to suppress a fire, it gets too big for all of us."

Several conservation organizations had representatives at the meeting, including Serena Gordon, of Bend, of Conservational Lands, Larry Pennington, chairman of the Oregon Sierra Club, and David Eddleston, of the Friends of Oregon Badlands Wilderness, all voicing their support for the economic benefits of the wilderness proposal.

Ashwood resident Ann Snyder favored the consolidation, but added, "I think four gates on less than 10 miles of road can be a nightmare."

She also questioned how such closures would be publicized, and how emergency vehicles would get in without wasting valuable time.

Jim Nartz, of Ashwood, said he is against the wilderness proposal, and believes that Young Life will have even more trespassing problems if the road is 200 feet from the wilderness.

"They started the idea, yet they do not want to allow access," said Nartz, who has floated the river for 50 years. From July on, he added, it's not usually floatable. "You throw rocks out of the way to get through there."

Marty Symons, of Ashwood, said that he doesn't believe the county should put its funds toward the wilderness access. "If the road is closed, it should be to everyone. Permanent road access to that wilderness is definitely required; it's ridiculous to consider anything else."

Dave Klym, of Crooked River Ranch, supported keeping the road open. "You don't need to have it designated as a wilderness to have a land exchange," he said. "Locking up federal lands is really not necessary ... It won't be long before we can't even drive out into the woods anymore."