Editorial: Wilderness needs good public access

There’s much to celebrate today as the Wilderness Act turns 50. Wilderness advocates are pleased and also disappointed.

What’s peculiar is one of their arguments. They say Oregon has a wilderness deficit.

They point out California has 15 percent wilderness. Washington has 10 percent. Idaho has 8 percent. And trailing behind is Oregon with 4 percent.

Wilderness advocates complain that Congress has let Oregon down.

But if you look at the new wilderness proposal for Oregon — introduced by Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Oregon Democrats — we think Congress has done its job by not passing it.

The new wilderness proposal for Oregon is a package of beautiful areas, including 8,500 acres around Cathedral Rock. Cathedral Rock has stunning basalt cliffs along the John Day River and hills dappled with juniper and sagebrush. There are also land exchanges to inject some logic and continuity on the area’s checkerboard of private and public land.

What’s disturbing is the way the boundaries of Cathedral Rock are drawn. There’s a moat of private land blocking public access by road.

Sure, there will be plenty of access for those who can go down the John Day. The proposal, though, is that road access along Muddy Creek Road will be limited. It’s true that the road can be nothing more than a good place to get stuck to begin with, but it’s not right to create a wilderness and concoct ways to limit public access to get there.

Merkley and Wyden have argued that issues of road access are outside the scope of their bill. We are not convinced that had to be the case. And they certainly did not have to introduce the bill without such a serious issue being satisfactorily resolved.

Wilderness designations are the highest level of protection by the federal government. Congress should not be rubber-stamping every proposal that comes along until Oregon catches up to an artificial quota of wilderness.