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A Sweet Deal on the John Day 

BLM gains land and 5-mile stretch of the John Day River.

It's a rare thing in human affairs to put together a complicated deal that makes everybody happy. But the Oregon Natural Desert Association, Young Life and the BLM seem to have pulled it off.

Young Life is an organization that runs a non-denominational Christian camp for young people. The camp is located near the remote town of Antelope not far from the John Day River. The site probably is most famous (or notorious) as the former home of the Rajneeshee cult commune.

The area in and around the Young Life camp is a hodgepodge of BLM land, privately owned land and Young Life-owned land. A map of it looks like a jigsaw puzzle assembled by a 3-year-old.

ONDA and Young Life saw an opportunity to make more sense out of the puzzle by arranging a number of land swaps involving Young Life, the BLM and a couple of local ranchers. Altogether, the BLM will get almost 10,400 acres in exchange for about 10,600 acres from Young Life and the ranchers. The BLM also will gain a nearly 5-mile stretch of the John Day.

The deal will clarify land ownership in the area, consolidate the BLM's and Young Life's holdings and give hunters and anglers access to more public acreage.

But ONDA has a goal beyond that, and it's an intriguing one: The land swap opens up the chance to create two new federally designated wilderness areas, one to be called Coffin Rock (about 10,300 acres next to the river) and another about four miles to the south, to be called Horse Heaven (about 8,000 acres).

In addition to protecting important wildlife habitat - according to ONDA, the area is home to 36 plant and animal species designated as "sensitive" - the land swaps and creation of the new wilderness areas will expand recreation opportunities.

"This is an incredible heritage for public lands recreationists," ONDA said in a press release. "Rafters of the John Day River can attest to the need for more campsites and public access to upland areas that Coffin Rock will provide. Backcountry hunters will be able to scan the hillsides for elk, deer and Chukar without concern for complex land ownership patterns. Anglers can access nearly 5 miles of the John Day River by land that they could never reach before."

It will, of course, require action by Congress to achieve the wilderness designations, and that can be a long grind - as the history of the fight for creation of the Badlands wilderness near Bend shows. But there's reason to believe it could be easier this time. None of the nearby landowners or local governments seem to object, and neither do the off-road vehicle enthusiasts - at least not yet.

Meanwhile, it might help to contact Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Rep. Greg Walden in support of the wilderness designations. And it can't hurt to deliver the GLASS SLIPPER to all the parties involved in the land exchange for working out a practical and beneficial solution to a tricky problem.


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