Wilderness owners propose access

Plan no solution to Cathedral Rock dilemma, Jefferson commissioner says

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Private landowners involved with a possible land swap with the federal government say they have a solution to a problem of road access to a proposed Cathedral Rock Wilderness. But a Jefferson County commissioner says he has seen the plan before and it wouldn't solve the problem.

Young Life and the Cherry Creek Ranch are proposing a trailhead for overland access to the wilderness off Muddy Creek Road northeast of Madras near the Jefferson-Wasco county line. They also call for a series of four gates to close sections of the roads seasonally to visitors while locals, as well as state and federal agencies, would have keys allowing them to drive the road except when closed by wintry weather.

“Anyone who has a reason or a need to get through there is going to be able to access it,” said Matt Smith, vice president of the Cherry Creek Ranch.

Young Life, which operates a Christian youth summer camp at Washington Family Ranch, and Cherry Creek Ranch detailed their proposal in a letter to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden in late March. Wyden's office released the plan and letter late Thursday. Craig Kilpatrick, land use consultant for Washington Family Ranch, said in an email that he was too busy for an interview Friday with The Bulletin.

He did send a map detailing the proposal. While the design has been updated, the location of the four gates and trailhead on the new map are the same as proposed in August 2011 by Young Life and Cherry Creek, according to Jefferson County records.

The times of year sections of the road or the entire road would be closed also coincide.

Wyden and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, both Democrats representing Oregon, reintroduced a trio of bills in February that would designate 100,000 acres of new wilderness around the state. The plans include the 8,686-acre Cathedral Rock and 9,200-acre Horse Heaven wildernesses. Cathedral Rock would lie primarily in Jefferson County, and Horse Heaven entirely in Jefferson County. Both would be created primarily by land exchanges between Young Life and Cherry Creek Ranch with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Cathedral Rock would be named after a formation along the John Day River on the east side of the proposed wilderness and not a rock by the same name along Highway 26 between Dayville and Mitchell.

The wilderness proposals come with the caveat that the landowners and Jefferson County reach agreement about public access to Muddy Creek Road, which runs eight miles between Gosner Road and the Washington Family Ranch. The Young Life camp is the site of the former commune created by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1980s before plots to rig votes and poison officials led to his deportation from the country.

County officials pulled their support for the wilderness areas in October 2011 after realizing Young Life and Cherry Creek had changed their plan from earlier in the year to keep a buffer of private land between the road and the wilderness, limiting public access to the John Day River on the east side of the wilderness.

While glad to see the plan include a trailhead again off Muddy Creek Road, the gates and seasonal closures of the roads to visitors don't solve the access problem, said Jefferson County Commissioner Mike Ahern.

“I think they are missing the point,” he said. “The public wants to access that road.”

He said the proposal for the gates and closures is the same proposal from years back that the county didn't support after hearing from the public, which didn't want limits put on access along Muddy Creek Road.

“It's nothing new,” he said.

Young Life and Cherry Creek Ranch propose closing three miles of the road between the Young Life south camp and a gate about a half-mile north of the trailhead to visitors from the start of April until the end of August. A four-mile stretch of the road between Gosner Road and a gate about a half-mile south of the trailhead would be closed from the start of September until the end of October. The entire road would be closed to outside visitors from the start of December to the end of March.

The closures would limit traffic on the road and stop problems created by poachers and trespassers, Smith said.

The proposal shows that the closures would coincide with the presence of thousands of summer campers at Young Life and fall deer hunting near Cherry Creek Ranch. The county would maintain the gates and the trailhead under the proposal. Ahern said the county isn't interested in the maintenance outlined in the proposal. Currently the road is barely maintained, Ahern said, with a grader scraping about once a year.

Wyden is waiting to hear the county response to the Young Life and Cherry Creek plan, said Tom Towslee, the senator's spokesman in Oregon.

“This is a genuine and generous proposal to solve the access ... issue at the proposed wilderness at Cathedral Rock,” he said.

Plans for Muddy Creek Road

Young Life and Cherry Creek Ranch are proposing the following along Muddy Creek Road, a rugged dirt road in far northeast Jefferson County:

• Build a trailhead and parking lot near the Wagner Mountain Jeep trail. Jefferson County would maintain the trailhead and lot.

• Install four gates along the road for seasonal closures. The county would maintain the gates.

• Install signs to warn of hazardous conditions or road closures. The county would maintain the signs.

• Supply the materials for guardrails on select sections of the road. The county would install the guardrails.

• Young Life would provide a phone line for a county-installed emergency phone at the Wasco-Jefferson county line along the road.

Source: Office of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden