Proposed wilderness areas are a good solution for all

Matt Smith /

The Bulletin’s recent editorial of Dec. 19 calling for better public access to Cathedral Rock was simplistic and incomplete. The Bulletin’s perspective is under-informed and entirely misses the perspective of the numerous groups who came together to create this remarkable proposal.

The proposal for the Cathedral Rock/Horse Heaven Wilderness area came about because of a collaboration between Young Life, Oregon Natural Desert Association and Cherry Creek Ranch. The goal was to divest private landowners of landlocked sections of public lands that are largely currently inaccessible to the public. In so doing, two new wilderness areas would be created that would offer greater public access than currently exists.

The first wilderness area, Cathedral Rock, would be accessible from the John Day River. The proposal gathered support from a vast array of user groups because of its river-only access, not in spite of it. These groups include the private landowners who helped initiate this proposal and stand ready to trade into public ownership four miles of John Day River frontage. That in itself is a tremendous opportunity.

The second area, Horse Heaven, would be accessible from a public road in locations agreeable to all involved. All on its own, without even considering Cathedral Rock, the Horse Heaven area represents a net gain in acres accessible to the public.

Long after the introduction of the legislation, the Jefferson County commissioners, who had initially supported the entire proposal, decided that they were not satisfied and suggested a seasonal access/closure to accommodate road access to Cathedral Rock. It should be stated that the road in question is steep, not maintained and quite impassable, even dangerous, at certain times of the year. It is also in a location where cell service is unavailable. This means that the adjacent landowners bear the brunt of dealing with trespass, poaching, litter and rescue along this stretch of road. This is in contrast to the road that would provide access to Horse Heaven, which is a well-maintained and nearly all-weather road.

Building on that idea of a seasonal road closure that Jefferson County put on the table, the stakeholders crafted a solution that would provide the desired access to the public while remaining sensitive to the needs of the stakeholders, including landowners not immediately adjacent to the proposed wilderness.

The Jefferson County commissioners were initially excited by the solution but later rejected it, wanting more.

I mentioned in the first paragraph that this proposal is remarkable. It is remarkable because of the tremendous unilateral support that it has received from nearly all of the interests involved. It ties up no commercial resources, represents a net gain in lands accessible to the public including John Day River frontage (which is where the vast majority of users would access from) and is supported by a highly diverse array of special interest groups. This plan for wilderness is remarkable because of its conspicuous lack of opposition. This lack of opposition exists because of the painstaking efforts and significant compromise of the various user groups and stakeholders involved and because of the tremendous efforts of Sen. Ron Wyden and his staff. They were invaluable in their aid to this effort and thorough in their many visits on the ground to understand the complex issues and to make sure all involved were well represented.

We as landowners have offered tremendous effort, time, money and seemingly endless compromise to further this proposal and try to satisfy all involved. We will try to continue to do so, but we can only do so much. We are grateful for the efforts taken by our Congressional delegation to understand the issue and create a bill that without question objectively serves the greater good. They have fostered a spirit of compromise, and in that spirit a solid solution has been presented for what seems to be the only contentious part of the proposal.