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Editorial:Heaven in the high desert | Senators propose wilderness areas near Antelope

Register Guard

Eugene, Oregon Feb 05, 2010

The proposed Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven federal wilderness areas make up for their lack of size with the uniqueness of Oregon’s incomparable high desert, with its basalt cliffs and rolling hills of juniper, sagebrush and bluebunch wheatgrass. And a horizon that drifts into eternity.

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have proposed adding to the state’s wilderness inventory 16,000 acres of high desert near the John Day River in Central Oregon. A land swap between private landholders and the federal Bureau of Land Management would clear the way for congressional approval of the two new wilderness areas.

Unlike other wilderness plans, this one has stirred up little controversy. Both the land swap and wilderness proposal have the backing of Jefferson, Wasco and Wheeler counties and nearby landowners and businesses. Hunters are enthusiastic about the prospect of protected wintering grounds for game, and boaters, anglers and hikers are pleased by plans to open nearly five miles of John Day River frontage to the public.

Under the proposal, the BLM would receive 8,821 acres in exchange for 12,323 acres going to three landowners, including the Christian youth organization Young Life. The Young Life Washington Family Ranch camp near the town of Antelope is the former home of followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and the prospect of granting public access to lands once zealously guarded by armed members of the red-clad sect should appeal to Oregonians who recall that disturbing episode in this state’s history.

As with any wilderness proposal, Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven faces significant hurdles, including an appraisal of properties involved in the swap and scrutiny by congressional panels. The proposal deserves the full support of Oregon’s delegation — and that of the entire Congress.

For a state known for its forests, mountains and rivers, Oregon has a surprisingly small amount of land designated as wilderness. Even with last year’s addition of more than 200,000 acres of new wilderness areas across the state, the percentage of the state protected under the federal Wilderness Act is a mere 4 percent. That pales in comparison to the 15 percent of the land area in California, 12 percent in Washington and 8 percent in Idaho that have federal wilderness protection.

Wyden, Merkley and other members of Oregon’s delegation should consider using the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven proposals as a starting point for a new “Oregon Treasures” package that should include the Devil’s Staircase, the remote Wassen Creek roadless area located in the central Coast Range between the Smith and Umpqua Rivers.

The bill also should include a long-standing proposal to add 60,000 acres to the existing Wild Rogue Wilderness and to extend wild and scenic protection to 143 miles of tributaries that feed the iconic Rogue River.

Even with the addition of these and other proposed wilderness areas, Oregon still would lag behind other Western states in the percentage of land protected as federal wilderness. Oregon needs more wilderness, and the high desert is an excellent place to start filling that need.

 

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