I was on site when President John F. Kennedy declared the North Fork of the John Day a wilderness. The way we used the new wilderness changed. There were no more mountain bikes, no more game carts or retrieving game with a Jeep. That is all part of life and we have made adjustments and enjoy the wilderness experience. However, over the years the wilderness has become more crowded and, yes, it has been good for business. The more people that have access to and enjoy wilderness areas definitely create a draw and economic stimulus.
I have followed the process by which the newly proposed Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven wilderness areas have been fast tracked and I am concerned. First there is a land exchange to consolidate private and public lands. This is a good concept. As a river drifter I have had access to the river through Cathedral Rock area as long as the river has adequate water - four to five months a year. It has been stated that this wilderness will protect endangered plant species and that it will open access to more public land. This is where the burr under my saddle begins to rub.
The newly proposed Cathedral Rock Wilderness is completely surrounded by the private landowner involved in the trade, effectively locking up all public access to the wilderness except by the river. This is very similar to the newly created Spring Basin Wilderness, which for the most part is also landlocked. The only true access to these areas will be by the private landowners that surround these areas. In order for the land trade to take place all prior uses of the land that will now be wilderness are grandfathered into conditional uses in the new wilderness. Yes, this means grazing of cattle (so much for protecting endangered plants) and the operating of motor vehicles within the wilderness to take care of the cattle. What happened to the true definition of wilderness? You will be able to drive down a road and look across the 50 yards of private property at the wilderness, but you will not be able to walk or hike there. I see this as a land grab of public land to be used almost exclusively by the adjacent private landowner. If this and other areas that are presently being studied for potential wilderness areas have the same restrictions to access, how can wilderness be good business?
Editor's note: Aaron Kilgore of the Oregon Natural Desert Association responds by pointing out that while his organization was unable to negotiate roaded access to Cathedral Rock, the land swap would open up some 9,000 acres previously inaccessible to the public. It would also provide vehicle access and camping opportunities at the other proposed wilderness, the roughly 8,000-acre Horse Heaven area. Kilgore says also that the grandfathering of grazing rights is not specific to this proposal, rather it is part of the language of the 1963 Wilderness Act as passed by Congress.