Cathedral Rock Wilderness proposal still in Senate

By Dylan J. Darling The Bulletin

Years after it was first proposed, Cathedral Rock Wilderness in Jefferson County remains a possibility, although the legislation that would make the proposal a reality is stalled in Congress.

The proposed 8,686-acre wilderness along the John Day River is part of the Oregon Treasures Act of 2013, which has languished in the Senate and which combined four previous bills for wilderness around the state that never passed through Congress. The bill also includes the proposed 9,200-acre Horse Heaven Wilderness. Most of the land for both proposed wildernesses is in Jefferson County.

“The Cathedral Rock bill has cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and is awaiting action by the full Senate,” wrote Tom Towslee, a spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in an email late last week. “The goal is to include it along with other wilderness bills as part of a larger public lands bill. No estimation at this point when that will happen.”

Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley, also D-Ore., introduced the Oregon Treasures Act in February 2013.

Congress has a backlog of public lands bills, formed while lawmakers were focused on other issues, said Ben Gordon, John Day coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association. The Bend-based conservation group is a proponent of the proposed Cathedral Rock Wilderness.

“It is sort of stuck in this holding pattern,” he said, “waiting for a vote in the Senate.”

In the bill, the Bureau of Land Management would swap land with Young Life, which operates a nearby Christian summer camp, and Cherry Creek Ranch to create Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven wildernesses. The swaps would result in consolidated public holdings rather than the current checkerboard of public and private ownership with some public parcels completely surrounded by private land.

But the Cathedral Rock proposal in particular has raised questions about public access. The bill in Congress would make the John Day River near Antelope the primary way to access Cathedral Rock and leave a buffer of private land between Muddy Creek Road and the public land.

The Jefferson County Commission originally supported a 2009 plan for Cathedral Rock proposed by the Oregon Natural Desert Association that included access from Muddy Creek Road. Commissioners pulled their support in October 2011 when they realized a bill introduced by Wyden that year would create the buffer between the county road and the federal wilderness.

Since then, Wyden has urged the county and private landowners to come to an agreement about the wilderness. Meanwhile, the bill waits in Congress.

Cathedral Rock supporters say it would increase the number of camping options for boaters and rafters along four miles of the John Day River by making land public along the stretch of river.

“To me it’s a win-win for everybody,” said Matt Smith, vice president at Cherry Creek Ranch.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

Editor’s note: This story has been updated. In the original version, the acreage for the proposed Horse Heaven Wilderness was incorrect. The Bulletin regrets the error.

The John Day River in front of Cathedral Rock, the namesake of a proposed wilderness area. Landowners involved with the potential land swap with the federal government that would lead to the creation of the wilderness are offering a compromise on road access. Photo Courtesy Patrick Kollodge U.S. Bureau of Land Management