When Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden introduced the Horse Heaven and Cathedral Rock Wilderness Act into Congress, they were responding to the widespread public support for protecting these two areas. This includes the support from a diverse group of stakeholders including the Northwest Rafters Association, the Redmond Chapter of the Oregon Hunters Association, county governments, the neighboring landowners and numerous conservation organizations. With the increasingly partisan nature of politics these days, it must be refreshing for our members of Congress to see disparate parties come to the table with an idea that solves multiple problems for diverse stakeholders and creates a new wilderness area in the process.
The fragmentation of public and private lands is an enduring problem in the John Day Basin. Because land ownership often looks like a checkerboard, it is not clear when you're on the ground where public land ends and private land begins. This creates confusion about access and inevitably results in management conflicts such as trespass and illegal hunting on private lands.
Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven Mountain are such areas. It's the largest tract of public land in the area that is accessible by road is 5,000 acres. While this might sound like a lot of land, this one- mile-wide strip of land is incredibly difficult for the public to use for hunting or hiking without accidentally straying on- to private land. In addition, much of the remaining public land in the area is isolated within private lands and therefore is completely inaccessible and has very limited value to the public. Over two years ago, these were problems that a diverse group of stakeholders set out to resolve through equal-value land exchanges and thoughtful conservation designations. The outcome is a proposal that greatly expands public access in the area and preserves two unique areas - Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven Mountain - for future generations.
It was suggested by a reader that this proposal provides exclusive access to these areas for private landowners; that is simply not true. The boundaries of these areas were set up in a way that greatly expands public access while respecting the needs of neighboring private landowners. This does mean that one of the two areas, the nearly 8,000-acre Cathedral Rock area, will be accessed only via the John Day River.
This is not a new concept in the region. Criticism of the Cathedral Rock boundary fails to recognize that all three wilderness study areas located several miles downstream (i.e. Northpole Ridge, Thirtymile, and Lower John Day) are also exclusively accessed by the river. This is only a problem if you view the proposal from the narrow perspective that all land should be available for all uses. In fact, such a view fails to recognize that the greatest demand on public lands in the John Day Basin is for recreational use on the river corridor. Thousands of boaters and anglers float this stretch of the river every year. The Cathedral Rock proposal will expand public ownership by over four miles along the John Day River and thus open up a dozen additional campsites to the public.
At the same time, the Horse Heaven proposed wilderness area consolidates over 8,000 acres in a way that will provide clearly-marked boundaries and two trailheads for parking and associated camping areas. This will create additional hiking and hunting opportunities and do so in a way that minimizes conflicts between public and private lands. If you don't care about river access, this would be the place for you. It is the combination of the Horse Heaven and Cathedral Rock areas that makes this a winning proposal; to criticize one without acknowledging the benefits of the other is simply misleading.
You need look no further than the numbers to see the public benefits of this proposal. Prior to the exchange, the public can access 9,112 acres of their land via roads or the John Day River. Through this proposal, public access will be expanded to 16,484 acres. That nearly doubles the amount of access in the area. Likewise, instead of the public having access to small chunks or narrow swaths of land that are not currently usable for activities such as hunting and hiking, the public will have access to two large blocks of land, each totaling several thousand acres. This is a win for Oregonians and we hope you will lend your support at www.onda.org.
Brent Fenty is the Executive Director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA). A Bend-based organization that has spent over two decades working to protect, defend and restore Oregon's high desert. Matt Smith is the Vice President of William Smith Properties and a neighboring landowner. Forrest Reinhardt is the local representative of YoungLife, which owns and operates the Washington Family Ranch Christian youth camp in the area.