Editorial: Wilderness bill shouldn’t advance until public access is assured

Published Jun 18, 2014 at 12:01AM

Legislation to create the Cathedral Rock Wilderness is stalled in Congress, and it should stay that way until it is revised to ensure full public access.

The plan has numerous benefits, but its fatal flaw is the moat of private land that would block most people from public land that they can reach now.

The plan has been discussed in various forms for years, and was introduced as part of the Oregon Treasures Act of 2013 by Oregon’s U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. The bill would create the 8,686-acre Cathedral Rock Wilderness in Jefferson and Wasco counties, and the 9,200-acre Horse Heaven Wilderness in Jefferson County.

The land is now a patchwork of private and public lands, which would be consolidated through swaps between the Bureau of Land Management and private owners Young Life, which runs summer camps, and Cherry Creek Ranch.

Controversy has focused on Cathedral Rock, where land access would be extremely limited, essentially giving private land owners unfettered use of public lands. Jefferson County, which supported earlier versions of the plan, pulled back after road access was closed. The public would gain consolidated land and access along the John Day River, but could reach it only by floating the river. Hikers and hunters would lose out.

The plan has enthusiastic support from the private land owners who would benefit, and from the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a Bend-based conservation group.

What’s befuddling is the support it has received from our senators. Wyden has asked the county and landowners to find compromise on access, but offers from the landowners fall far short of full access, and the county has rejected them.

Wyden and Merkley need to protect the public by insisting on full road access to Cathedral Rock. Until that is accomplished, the bill should not advance.