Franklin County Commissioners are mulling whether to pursue a $500,000 grant toward completing an access road into the Juniper Dunes wilderness area.
Commissioners heard at a meeting Thursday that the money is available through the Federal Highway Administration and the state Department of Transportation for projects providing or improving access to federal lands.
County officials said the Peterson Road project they've planned to provide public access to Juniper Dunes is a good candidate for the program, but Commission Chairman Rick Miller told the Herald that commissioners have some concerns about strings that might be attached to the money.
"The idea is we want to see if it's flexible," Miller said.
Juniper Dunes, about 18 miles northeast of Pasco, contains a 7,100-acre fenced wilderness area, a 3,900-acre open area that's a popular local spot for picnicking and driving off-road vehicles, and a 8,600-acre environmental conservation area, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Franklin County and the BLM have been working on an access plan for the area since 1986 to try to solve the problem of the public entering Juniper Dunes by trespassing on Peterson Road -- a privately owned gravel and dirt road.
The county in 2011 received a $716,000 BLM grant to start improving Peterson Road to make it a county road, but the project stalled when the county learned there are large irrigation pipelines a few feet below the surface, according to a staff report from the county Public Works Department.
The property owner -- a farming corporation in Champaign, Ill. -- is asking for the pipelines to be relocated, but the cost exceeds the grant money the county received from BLM.
Replacement of the irrigation pipelines would cost about $1 million, the commissioners were told in August.
Miller said the federal highways grant would cover about half the cost, but the county would have to find the rest of the money. And he's not certain that replacing the pipe is the best option.
Commissioners asked the Public Works Department staff to look into the grant program and find out whether the money would be restricted to replacing the pipe, or if it could be used more flexibly if the county decides on another access option, Miller said.
No action was taken at Thursday's meeting. Miller said commissioners expect to discuss Juniper Dunes again in a week or two.
The deadline to apply for the grant is Jan. 25.