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New Wilderness Area Proposal

Oregon Natural Desert Association looking at Deschutes River

Bend, OR Dec 13, 2010

By Kate Ramsayer, The Bend Bulletin

The steep, craggy cliffs along the lower stretch of Whychus Creek and the Middle Deschutes, including Alder Springs and the Steelhead Falls, would be a new wilderness area under a proposal from the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

“It’s a really completely unique, rugged area,” said Gena Goodman-Campbell, Central Oregon wilderness coordinator with the Bend-based conservation nonprofit. “And the fact that it has remained undeveloped, and relatively untouched over the years of a lot of development in that area, it’s just a testament to that ruggedness and wildness of that canyon.”

The area, which would be called the Whychus-Deschutes Wilderness, would be about 15,000 acres along Whychus Creek and the Middle Deschutes, including the confluence of the two. The area, with its cold springs, will be key spawning and rearing habitat for steelhead, Goodman-Campbell said, when the fish that have been reintroduced to the area return in a couple of years.

The area also has trails and recreation sites, she said, including a popular hike to Steelhead Falls on the Deschutes River.

“It’s super accessible,” she said. “Steelhead Falls, you can walk a couple hundred feet into this proposed wilderness and really get a feel of the wildness and the character of it.”

And the proposed wilderness area is also right up against residential areas — including about 150 lots in Crooked River Ranch.

While it’s unusual for a wilderness area to be so close to development, it’s not unheard of, Goodman-Campbell said.

And having a federally designated wilderness in their backyards won’t have an impact on local land use laws for neighbors, she said.

Some of the land included in the proposal is partly managed by the Crooked River National Grassland, while other sections are managed by the Prineville district of the Bureau of Land Management.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association is pushing for the additional layers of wilderness protection, which would prohibit motorized vehicles and development, to ensure the area stays in a natural state, Goodman-Campbell said.

“It’s the same argument in my mind as the Badlands,” she said, “in that we can never predict the threats an area is going to face 10, 20, 50 years down the line.”

She has started gathering support for the proposal, talking to Crooked River Ranch homeowners, and holding open houses in the area to hear what people have to say along with their concerns or ideas about the proposal.

One concern that people have brought up is what designating the area a wilderness would mean for wildfire protection in the dry area. Typically, no bulldozers or other heavy machinery are used to fight wildfires in Central Oregon wilderness areas.

But a designation would come with a specific fire management plan that outlined what was allowed and what wasn’t in emergency situations, she said, and how to protect homes nearby.

Goodman-Campbell is also working with others on the possibility of closing some of the roads that currently go into the wilderness area — otherwise, the size of the proposed wilderness area might shrink. However, the plan currently calls for a road to Alder Springs Trailhead to stay open, with the wilderness boundary on either side, so people can get to the popular recreation site.

“You start with the big proposal, and then work through people’s concerns,” she said. “If there’s some things we can’t work through, we’ll make changes where we have to.”

The goal, she said, is to build community support for the wilderness proposal, and in a year or so have a plan that people agree on to take to the congressional delegation to ask for its support.

Gabe Parr, spokesman with the Deschutes chapter of Trout Unlimited, said he’s in favor of a wilderness area along the waterways.

“It would be ideal, especially with the reintroduction of salmon and steelhead, to have stretches of the river be protected,” he said.

The area has not been damaged from grazing or developed, he said, so protecting it could keep it pristine for the future.

Deschutes County Commissioner Alan Unger, however, said he wanted to know more before he could support a proposal.

The area is surrounded by development, he said. And sometimes, allowing vehicles into an area can help with restoration efforts at the site — there are other ways to protect places, he said, without the stricter wilderness regulations.

“If the goal is to preserve it as is, wilderness sometimes creates more restrictions than we would want to put in a good management plan,” he said.

Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or at kramsayer@bendbulletin.com.

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Oregon Natural Desert Association
50 SW Bond Street, Suite 4,
Bend, OR 97702
Tel: (541) 330-2638
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