Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin

The question surrounding the proposed Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven Wilderness Area Act is clear on a map.

Just west of the planned 8,686-acre Cathedral Rock Wilderness Area runs Muddy Creek Road, a dusty and bumpy Jefferson County byway. The right angles of the proposed public land boundary mimic the curves of the old road, leaving a ribbon of private land between the public road and the wilderness.

Supporters of the federal-for-private land swap that would make Cathedral Rock a reality say the buffer benefits the public and wildlife, creating a wilderness focused on access from the John Day River. Critics of the plan say it makes access difficult for members of the public who would recreate on public land, particularly hikers and hunters.

“One of the major goals is to expand the amount of public ownership along the (John Day River),” said Brent Fenty, executive director for the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association. The group has been working with the private landowners and advocating for the wilderness designation for more than three years.

He said the plan would make public a four-mile stretch of the river, adding about a dozen campsites for rafters on an increasingly popular run.

While the river would provide a route into the wilderness, it wouldn’t be an easy one, said former Madras mayor Rick Allen.

He said anyone looking to hunt or hike the land would have to first float the river unless they had permission from the landowners to cross the private land between the road and wilderness.

“I don’t understand why anyone would be supporting this,” he said.

Wilderness push

Sens. Ron Wyden, and Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrats, are co-sponsors of the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven Wilderness Act, which could be lumped together in an omnibus bill for congressional approval with two dozen other wilderness bills spread around 12 states. The Campaign for America’s Wilderness, a program of the Washington-based Pew Environmental Group, called for combining the separate bills into an omnibus bill in November newspaper ads.

While he had heard the question about access before, David Dreher, manager for the Pew Campaign for America’s Wilderness, said Cathedral Rock would be a part of the omnibus. “It would be a great win for Central Oregon,” Dreher said.

The bill has not been introduced in Congress, which has about a week left in its session, he said. The 112th Congress could be only the second Congress to designate no new wilderness areas since the 1964 Wilderness Act established the process. The 113th Congress is seated in January.

Spokespeople for the two Oregon senators said they also are aware of the concerns about access, particularly from elected leaders in Jefferson County, but they still support the plan.

“(Sen. Wyden) believes it addresses multiple land ownership challenges presented by the current checkerboard while giving the public more access than it currently has now without the problem of trespassing on private land,” wrote Tom Towslee, Wyden’s spokesman in Oregon, in an email.

The Cathedral Rock segment would be named after a rock along the John Day River, and the Horse Heaven segment would be named after a mountain. Both of the geological features would be in the new wilderness.

Merkley’s spokeswoman expressed qualms about the access issue.

“Senator Merkley believes the proposed Horse Heaven and Cathedral Rock wilderness area has numerous merits, including improved road access to Horse Heaven, and he continues to support the proposal,” wrote Courtney Warner Crowell, his deputy communications director. “He does believe, however, that legitimate concerns have been raised about public road access to the Cathedral Rock portion and that it would be to considerable public benefit if this concern could be addressed.”

Trespassing and poaching

On the map, private land surrounds pockets of public acres close to Muddy Creek Road. The situation leads to trespassing and poaching issues, said Fenty, of the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

Young Life, a Colorado Springs, Colo.,-based Christian group that runs a camp that draws thousands of middle and high school students each summer, owns most of the private acres involved in the swap. Fenty said it has felt the brunt of the trespassing and poaching problems along Muddy Creek Road.

Allen said Young Life would be giving up 8,000 acres, including the riverfront land, in exchange for about 12,000 acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Two other landowners would be involved in the exchanges, which would lead to about 18,000 acres of new wilderness.

The Young Life camp, the Washington Family Ranch, is the former compound of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and was once known as Rancho Rajneesh or Rajneeshpuram. An Indian guru, Rajneesh ran the commune in the 1980s before his followers were caught poisoning salad bars in The Dalles and plotting to kill local and state officials. He was eventually deported.

Most of the public land around Muddy Creek Road is surrounded by Young Life property.

“As the land is currently configured, it is not accessible and usable by the public,” Fenty said.

Young Life officials directed calls to Rich Ellerd, ranch manager, who did not return messages left Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday by The Bulletin. Craig Kilpatrick, land use consultant for Washington Family Ranch, in an email response to questions posed by The Bulletin, stated that creating two wilderness areas would bring “greater legal public access than now exists.” Consolidating private holdings presents opportunities for “workable land management” with clearly defined borders for rangeland, agricultural and recreational uses, he wrote.

Kilpatrick pointed out that numerous conservation, wildlife advocacy and hunting organizations have endorsed the wilderness bill, including Oregon Wild, the Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited, to name a few.

An original wilderness proposal, called Coffin Rock, included a parking area on Muddy Creek Road adjacent to Cherry Creek Ranch, Kilpatrick explained. During negotiations that redefined the wilderness into Cathedral Rock, Cherry Creek’s owners became concerned about public access near the century-old ranch headquarters building, he wrote.

Cherry Creek and Young Life representatives were concerned, as well, that those property owners would bear the responsibility for rescuing lost or injured visitors along the unimproved Muddy Creek Road, he wrote.

The Cathedral Rock portion of the wilderness proposal would only be accessed by the river. Fenty was quick to point out that the 9,200-acre Horse Heaven portion would be accessible by two roads.

Pulled support

The Jefferson County Board of Commissioners supported the original proposal for the wilderness, with access off Muddy Creek Road. The commission pulled its support in October 2011.

Commissioner Mike Ahern said the current plan would make a wilderness that was a “private little playground” for the landowners along the road while the public would be relegated to floating by it on the river and then hiking out of the river canyon. He doubts that the lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are hearing their complaints, though.

“I think the train has left the station,” he said. “I think we are going to get screwed on it.”

Matt Smith, manager of the Cherry Creek Ranch, said the access issue is overblown; state hunting tag restrictions would limit use of the private land and hunting in the new wilderness.

“There should be no controversy here,” he said.

The Cherry Creek Ranch is one of the three private landowners involved in the proposal. Smith said it opposed a prior plan for a parking lot along Muddy Creek Road because the lot would have been close to the ranch headquarters, and visitors would have come right through the property.

“You literally can bump your side-view mirror on our barn,” he said.

He said the landowners tried to put together a plan for access off the road involving seasonal closures, but the county commissioners rejected the notion. Kilpatrick wrote that Cherry Creek and Young Life proposed gate access and seasonal closures that the commissioners endorsed, a position that changed after four public hearings in which local residents sounded their opposition.

Now the landowners are only interested in entering into the swap with the federal government, Smith said, because of the limited access to the wilderness area that could stem trespassing and poaching along Muddy Creek Road.

He said chances to preserve parcels like the land around Cathedral Rock don’t come along often, and it could slip away.

“It would really be a shame to see such a solid deal, such a solid package as this, to go by,” Smith said.