Access to Juniper Dunes isn't area's only problem

July 21, 2010 

For years, we've championed the need for public access to the Juniper Dunes Wilderness Area.

Almost since the day it was designated a wilderness area in 1984, access problems have made headlines.

At issue is that the wilderness is surrounded by private lands. The main access route is Peterson Road, a private drive maintained by local land owners.

Complaints of rude behavior, litter, dust, speeding and other problems created by wilderness area users have caused landowners to take measures as extreme as barricading the road at times.

Franklin County commissioners have long struggled with what to do about Juniper Dunes. A few bad apples have complicated the debate.

The area is an asset to Mid-Columbia residents who enjoy hiking or riding ATVs and horses on the open lands. But access shouldn't come at the expense of neighboring landowners.

Commissioners recently approved a six-year transportation improvement plan for 2011-16 that includes construction of a public road to Juniper Dunes.

The project Juniper is at the top of the list and could be completed in the next two years. Of course, there's an "if" in the equation, and it's a big one.

The county is banking on most of the funding for the $1.5 million road project coming from the federal government.

The trouble is, the Bureau of Land Management must figure out how to get the money to the county. As with all things government, it's bound to include lots of red tape and obscure rules.

But by making Juniper Dunes a priority and putting plans into motion that might finally solve this decades-old dilemma, Franklin County commissioners are on the right path.

The federal government created a wilderness area in a place with no public access, and it makes sense that it pick up the tab for the cost of a public road.

We've supported plans for improvements to Juniper Dunes in the past, but often they haven't made it past the drawing board.

The lack of bathroom facilities remains an issue, especially considering that many of the 20,000 annual visitors to the area spend an entire day there.

A plan for vault toilets was scrapped after the BLM couldn't find a suitable location on the 8,600 acres it had to work with. And temporary outhouses were quickly demolished with shotgun blasts, a poor showing for folks who visit the area.

Opening a public road and completing other improvements are crucial to the future of Juniper Dunes, but no more important than the actions of those who visit the site.

The wilderness area is a playground and an asset for us all. Treat it with the esteem it deserves. If the users of Juniper Dunes fail to do that, it's a sure bet that no one will want to work to create better amenities out in the desert.

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