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This Road is History: Obscure wagon road may be the wrench in federal-state land deal 

Hatchet marks serve as historical reminders.The march of time has erased most of the Huntington Wagon Road. The shifting desert sand has long since

click to enlarge Hatchet marks serve as  historical reminders.
  • Hatchet marks serve as historical reminders.
Hatchet marks serve as historical reminders.The march of time has erased most of the Huntington Wagon Road. The shifting desert sand has long since filled in the wagon ruts. The few artifacts left behind by travelers on this early north-south route through Oregon are now encased behind museum glass at the Des Chutes Historical Center. But the land betrays a few signs of its former life.

 
The gnarled trunks of several junipers bear the scars of their function as road markers, hacked into by the hatchets of primitive road builders to mark the route for those that would follow. The hatchet marks, known as "blazes" are etched into several trees along the roughly mile-long stretch of Huntington Road, one of the few clues to the road's role as a critical supply route during the last Indian uprising in Oregon and Northern California, The Modoc War.

Thanks to the work of local historians, the significance of this particular stretch is well documented; bullet shells, ox shoes and metal shirt buttons are just some of the Civil War-era items recovered from the site.


What is less clear, however, is the future of this historic area which sits just northeast of Bend and directly in the sights of Oregon Department of State Lands (DSL), which has requested that it, along with another roughly 1,500 acres, be turned over to the state for future development.

The transfer represents partial payment for an outstanding land debt that the feds owe the state of Oregon dating back to statehood. The state successfully sued the federal government back in the early 1990s to satisfy the debt and has been working the BLM ever since to identify suitable lands for transfer to the state. Thanks in part to Central Oregon's phenomenal population growth, and, until recently, booming real estate market, most of those lands were earmarked for Deschutes and Crook County.

The BLM has already transferred over roughly 800 acres south of Redmond to DSL, which the agency plans to develop, investing the profits in the state's school fund.

BLM transferred another roughly 200 acres west of Redmond near Cline Buttes to the state in April and is eyeing another 600 acres outside Prineville.

But by far the biggest, and most contentious, transfer is the 1,600-area northeast of Bend, known as the Deschutes Market Road tract. The proposal, which has been several years in the making, has neighbors, many of whom live in the adjacent Boonesborough subdivision, and other preservationists seeing red. They've been building a case against the transfer for several years as the process winds its way through the significant state and federal red tape. The latest push has focused on the historic value of Huntington Road with an emphasis on public education.

"This is high quality land in public ownership, many people don't know this trail is out here," said Jeff Boyer, a neighbor and former city planner, who says the state's plan is nothing more than a blueprint for sprawl.

In fact, the land is currently outside the city's urban growth and urban areas reserve and considered a low priority for future expansion. The agency's own documents indicate that much of the initial interest in the property relied on its proximity to the city's planned development at Juniper Ridge - a project that is now on the ropes - and the area's red hot real estate market.

Last week Boyer led members of the Sierra Club on a tour of the property to survey the environmental attributes of the area, which is covered in mature juniper trees that likely predate the arrival of Columbus in the New World. Boyer said he plans to bring members of the Central Oregon Archeological Society out to the site sometime soon.

As it sits now, the Huntington Road has no specific protections that would preclude future development, other than what the Bureau of Land Management, has afforded it. While it is considered to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, Huntington Road has yet to be added to the list. It's also absent from Deschutes County's catalog of protected resources according to the Department of State Land's July 2007 review of the property.

However, the state agency has agreed to accept the land with a deed restriction precluding all future development within in the identified area of the road, which has been designated by the BLM as an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern," said Steve Purchase, DSL's assistant director who has been working on the land transfers.

He cites another BLM transfer property now under the management of the state near Stevens Road in southeast Bend as evidence of DSL's ability to work with the federal government to protect special areas. In that case, DSL took the land with a deed restriction around lava caves that provide bat habitat. Purchase said the caves continue to be subject to trespassers and that DSL is looking to fence off the area to protect the resource. However, the real test of DSL's management skills is probably several years off when the area is developed as the agency envisions it with a mix of residential and commercial uses.

Not surprisingly, neighbors are skeptical of the agency's ability to protect and manage Huntington Road should it take ownership of the property.

They're not the only ones carefully watching the transfer, the Oregon Natural Desert Association is monitoring the proposal. The organization's Executive Director, Brent Fenty, said that he is concerned that the BLM would consider transferring land that it has only recently designated for retention in the Upper Deschutes Management Plan, which is intended to provide guidance in cases like this.

"Our concern is that these were lands zoned for retention by the BLM," said Fenty. "This plan was finalized less than a year ago, and the BLM is going back to revisit lands they said they were going to retain in a recent plan.

"There is no question that the BLM needs to erase that land debt with the state, but there are other lands within (BLM's) Prineville District that were zoned for disposal or exchange. And we would like the (Department) of State Lands to look at those, because this is land that is pretty important for its historic and geologic value."

For its part, the BLM has an obligation to work with the state, even if it means reclassifying lands, said Michael Campbell, a BLM public affairs specialist.

"The underlying piece for us, is we still have an obligation to the state of Oregon under the law and we obviously take that debt seriously. We were taken to court in terms of honoring that debt, and we're now moving ahead to clear the ledger as it were."

Before that can happen, the agency will need to re-categorize the land under its own plans. That process will require an extensive analysis of the property that Campbell expects to get underway sometime this summer. It will also kick off another round of public input in which opponents like Boyer will again make their case against the transfer.

"The reason (Huntington Road) is classified as an area of environmental concern is because it should be protected. And the best way to protect it is not to develop near it," Boyer said.

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