You've got to hand it to Deschutes County Commissioners, at least they're consistent. For years, the county's triumvirate stubbornly refused to throw its collective weight behind a grassroots effort to create a new wilderness area at the BLM's Badlands area east of Bend. They eventually settled on a no-formal opposition position, clearing the way for proponents to take the question to Congress where The Badlands Wilderness Act was ultimately signed into law in 2008, formally creating Deschutes County's first federal wilderness. Despite opponents' fears, the sky hasn't come crashing to the ground, no one has outlawed four wheeling, and the nearby ranching industry hasn't collapsed. To the contrary, the Badlands, by many accounts, is in better shape than ever. Motorized trespassing is down as is illegal dumping and poaching of the ancient juniper forest.On any given day there are half dozen or more vehicles parked in the trailheads off Highway 20 as locals and tourists alike embark on hikes through the lava-sculpted area.
If there's something to be gleaned from the prolonged battle of the Badlands, it's that wilderness can be integrated into the existing landscape - even when that landscape is rife with multiple uses and within a few minutes drive of an urban area. But those lessons appear to be lost on the current county commissioners who took a knee-jerk approach to the most recent wilderness proposal, which encompasses roughly 19,000 acres around the confluence of the Deschutes and Whychus rivers. The plan has drawn criticism from the notoriously conservative and cantankerous Crooked River Ranch homeowners as well as the rural Jefferson County commissioners. That's to be expected. Anything that smacks of environmentalism is going to be rejected by these folks out of hand. But Deschutes County owes it to the Whychus supporters, which include adjacent landowners and the staff at the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) to give the matter a fair hearing. That hasn't happened. Instead, county commissioners took up the issue on Monday with no notice to the stakeholders, including ONDA. That's a problem for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it appears that the commissioners don't have their facts entirely in order. Consider the comments of Alan Unger, the only Democrat on the commission.
According to a published account of the meeting, Unger said that it wasn't Congress "intent" to "create this small of a wilderness." That's just patently wrong. The area is actually more than three times the 5,000-acre minimum established by Congress way back in 1964. And there are exceptions even to that rule.
While it's true that places like Whychus and the Badlands may not match up with wilderness stereotypes of alpine meadows and glaciered peaks, there are plenty of compelling reasons to protect places like Whychus precisely because of their relative proximity to developed areas. Opponents have pointed out that the existing Wilderness Study Area designation already affords Whychus all of the protections of a formal wilderness, yet it doesn't necessarily accord all the benefits, such as economic stimulus for nearby cities, a relationship that's been established by previous research, and increased vigilance on issues like trespass and dumping.
That isn't to say that commissioners ought to just blindly support ONDA's proposal. There are plenty of legitimate questions that remain. Thankfully, ONDA has indicated a willingness to revisit those issues with stakeholders. And maybe those issues won't be resolved, now or ever. But commissioners have an obligation to have an open and fair process and that hasn't happened. Because of that, we're giving them the Boot to the keister in the hopes that it opens their ears and their minds.