WASHINGTON — Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrats, reintroduced a trio of bills Thursday that would increase the environmental protections for more than 100,000 acres in Oregon.
Part of the Oregon Treasures Act, which consolidates four bills introduced but not passed during the previous session of Congress, includes provisions that would designate as wilderness 17,340 acres near Horse Heaven and Cathedral Rock, mostly in Jefferson County. It seeks to unify the protected area by authorizing the Bureau of Land Management to conduct land swaps with local private owners, including the summer camp Young Life and the Cherry Creek Ranch.
To make the long-discussed exchange a reality, Wyden and Merkley are urging the county to come to an agreement with the private landowners about public access to the wilderness.
“... (W)e feel that legitimate concerns have been raised about seasonal access and would like to work with you to seek a solution,” they wrote Wednesday to Young Life and Cherry Creek. The letter asked the two to facilitate public access to the remote Cathedral Rock site by allowing seasonal access from Muddy Creek Road.
The Jefferson County Board of Commissioners supported a 2009 wilderness proposal by the Oregon Natural Desert Association that included access from Muddy Creek Road. But the commission pulled its support in October 2011 after realizing that a bill introduced by Wyden earlier that year created a buffer of private land between the road and the wilderness.
Wyden's bill also made the John Day River near Antelope the primary access route, said John Hatfield, a Jefferson County commissioner.
“Our basic premise is that it seems not right to create a wilderness area that the general public can't access,” he said.
The board of commissioners wants to keep the road open year-round, Hatfield said, not have it closed seasonally as the landowners preferred.
Supporters of the proposed wilderness say it would create more camping options for rafters and other boaters by making public four miles of the John Day River. Those opposed say the lack of road access and limited access from the river in months with low water would prevent much of the public from enjoying the land.
The owners of Young Life and Cherry Creek have said they are interested in swapping land with the BLM to create the wilderness and to stem poaching and trespassing problems on their land, which surrounds public land in some places. Young Life and Cherry Creek Ranch officials will likely be meeting soon about the senators' request, said Matt Smith, vice president at Cherry Creek Ranch. He said he was happy to see Horse Heaven and Cathedral Rock again proposed as wilderness despite the impasse over access between the county and the private landowners.
“The bottom line is there is a way to make this work,” he said. “... Everyone has to meet in the middle.”
The first bill in the Oregon Treasures Act would also increase protections to the Chetco, Rogue and Molalla rivers elsewhere in Oregon.
The second piece of legislation adds 4,070 acres to the Oregon Caves National Monument by transferring the land from the U.S. Forest Service to the National Park Service. It would also make the River Styx the first underground waterway to be designated as scenic.
The third bill would reclassify 30,500 acres of the Siuslaw National Forest as wilderness and expand protections along 14 miles of the Wasson and Franklin creeks.
In a joint statement, Wyden and Merkley said they would continue to work to protect Oregon's natural beauty.
“The lands addressed in these bills are among Oregon's most pristine areas,” said Wyden. “These areas provide habitats to countless species of plants and animals, economic benefits to surrounding communities and recreational opportunities for Oregonians and visitors throughout the nation.”
“Oregon's wilderness contains some of the most beautiful land in America,” Merkley said. “These bills are an important step toward protecting some of our most treasured areas and making sure that surrounding communities have the healthy salmon, steelhead and trout runs, recreation and tourism for their local economies that they depend on.”
The bills reintroduced Thursday repackage legislation Wyden and Merkley proposed during the previous term; the 112th Congress was the first Congress in 40 years that failed to designate any wilderness areas.