The Cathedral Rock Wilderness is a beautiful proposal with an ugly flaw: Extremely limited public access. The nearby landowners and Jefferson County officials need to come up with a solution. The latest suggested compromise only puts shine on the ugly.
Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, proposed a legislative package that includes expanding wilderness protections to a number of areas in Oregon. It includes Cathedral Rock, an 8,686-acre wilderness area that would be mostly located in Jefferson County.
There are many reasons why the Cathedral Rock proposal is attractive. It’s a pristine area along the John Day River. The proposal includes land swaps with the two major nearby landowners that consolidate the checkerboard of private and Bureau of Land Management land.
The proposal also would create new camping options for rafters along four miles of the river. Thousands of people float that stretch of the river every year.
But, as we said, there’s also only limited public land access. That needs to be fixed.
Under the Congressional proposal, people who float the river would be able to get in. And the two nearby landowners — Cherry Creek Ranch and Young Life — can decide who can get in by land and who can’t.
The boundaries were gerrymandered so there’s a strip of private land between nearby rugged Muddy Creek Road and the public land.
Why would Wyden and Merkley propose a wilderness area without insisting on better public access?
They pushed for more public access, but that was after they introduced their bills providing the extremely limited access.
The landowners have made a new proposed compromise, similar to an older proposal. The idea is to have a trailhead and parking lot off the road that would be maintained by the county. Locals and emergency agencies would get gate keys and year-round access — as long as their vehicles could make the trip on the challenging road. Other members of the public would get blocked gates on the road during the summer camping season and during fall hunting season.
That’s better access than no access. But as Jefferson County Commissioner Mike Ahern said, it misses the point. “The public wants to access that road,” he said.
The commission and the landowners should work out a better compromise. If they cannot, Wyden and Merkley should amend their legislative package to pull Cathedral Rock out, until a better solution is found.