A Congressional bill could help protect a Central Oregon community at high risk for wildfire, but would also remove protections from more than 800 acres of public land.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, is sponsoring House Resolution 2075, titled “Crooked River Ranch Fire Protection Act.” The bill changes the eastern boundary of the Deschutes Canyon-Steelhead Falls Wilderness Study Area, removing protections from 832 acres near the edge of Crooked River Ranch. The bill is awaiting a vote from the U.S. House of Representatives later Wednesday.

The change would allow forest managers to thin juniper trees in the area with chain saws. Walden and other advocates say that would make it easier to keep fires from spreading near Crooked River Ranch, an unincorporated subdivision with about 5,500 full-time residents.

“To me, this is just common sense,” Walden said.

Dan Morse, conservation director for the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association, said the bill removes protections from an environmentally sensitive area without addressing wildfire danger in Crooked River Ranch more holistically.

“Our view is that it’s an incomplete solution,” Morse said.

The Deschutes Canyon-Steelhead Falls Wilderness Study Area is a long, narrow band encompassing 18,400 acres surrounding the Deschutes River to the west of Madras and Crooked River Ranch.

The area is one of 517 wilderness study areas overseen by the Bureau of Land Management in the Western United States.

The designation is intended to protect large, wild parcels of land, prohibiting the use of chain saws and most other motorized equipment, according to the BLM. Walden said these restrictions make it more of a challenge to trim the abundant juniper trees in the area and take other steps toward fire prevention.

Some Crooked River Ranch properties sit next to the edge of the wilderness area, creating a dangerous situation. David Palmer, president of the Crooked River Ranch board, said the river rim adjacent to the subdivision carries an “extreme” fire risk under Jefferson County’s community wildfire protection plan, thanks to its dry climate and the afternoon winds blowing off the Cascade Mountains to the west.

Palmer added that Crooked River Ranch has one paved road into and out of the community. While a second route is slated for the community, Palmer said it likely wouldn’t be completed until fall. In the meantime, the volume of people and the needs of emergency vehicles will make evacuations in the event of a nearby wildfire a challenge.

“The only hope is that we get notified early and soon,” Palmer said.

Morse said he sympathizes with Crooked River Ranch residents and supports improving wildfire protections for the community. However, he added that he’d like to see a focus on managing risk through land-use and fire-management planning.

“This is about more than reducing wildfire risk,” Morse said.

Walden began working on the bill in 2016, after hearing from residents. He emphasized that the parcel will remain public land, adding that the area will not be clear-cut, but rather trimmed to create more of a wildfire buffer for Crooked River Ranch residents.

“For the surrounding community, it’s got to put the fear of God into them,” Walden said.

The bill ran into partisan opposition during the last two years, but Walden expressed confidence that the House of Representatives will vote for it Wednesday. From there, he said the bill might be rolled into a larger bill on public lands, but added that he’d like it to pass the U.S. Senate as a standalone bill, which he said could allow it to be implemented in time for the tail end of Central Oregon’s fire season.

“We know how devastating and vicious these wildfires can be,” Walden said.

—Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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