Feds to take tour of Juniper Dunes

By Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldApril 27, 2013 

For a group of Tri-City off-road driving enthusiasts, it's been frustrating to have a great place to ride so close by, but so difficult to get to.

"This has been kind of a burr in our saddle for a long time," said Lee Retterer, president of the Tri-Cities Peak Putters, a group that takes four-wheel drive vehicles into Juniper Dunes Wilderness.

But a federal grant could help his club out.

Franklin County commissioners will visit Juniper Dunes on Monday, playing host to representatives from the Federal Highway Administration's Washington State Federal Lands Access Program from Vancouver.

The county has requested $1.05 million from the highway administration to help it build a 4.2-mile road to Juniper Dunes, a 19,600-acre site near Pasco-Kahlotus Road that is difficult to access because it is surrounded by privately owned land.

"Our idea is to show them that this is a project that is very much needed," Board of Commissioners Chairman Rick Miller said.

Franklin County's proposal is one of 37 from across Washington seeking a total of $13.5 million in grants this year, said highway administration spokesman Doug Hecox. Nationally, $160 million is handed out annually. The agency has no set number for how many grants it will award.

"It's going to depend on the quality of the applicants, the need for the projects and the number of other applicants," Hecox said.

The county wants to build the road from the Pasco-Kahlotus Road into the wilderness and its off-road vehicle areas, according to the county's project proposal. The first mile, with farmland on both sides, would be paved. Once it gets into the wilderness area, owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the remaining 3.2 miles would be built as a standard county road.

BLM already has pledged a $650,000 grant to the project, while Franklin County will be responsible for a $163,717 match.

While Juniper Dunes is popular with hiking, biking, horseback riding, camping, photography, nature study, hunting and off-road enthusiasts, the county said it has been underused because of access problems.

The one road that goes into the property, the privately owned Petersen Road, has been closed several times during the past 20 years, the proposal said. While Juniper Dunes has seen more than 250 visitors a day during peak seasons, the road suffers from poor sight distances, substandard drainage and inadequate surface conditions.

Retterer said the Petersen Road gate has been open more often than not in recent years, but it still has "no trespassing" signs up.

While Retterer has been told that the person who put up the signs no longer owns the property, he still is uneasy about taking the route because the club believes in treading lightly. The road conditions also make it difficult to take a trailer. But the only other option is driving through a BLM-owned ravine that is even more treacherous.

While the Pasco-based Peak Putters, a member of the Pacific Northwest Four Wheel Drive Association, primarily drive Jeeps and other street-legal vehicles, others take to the sand dunes in a variety of rides.

"There's a lot of motorcycles, a lot of quads, a lot of things with paddles built into them for the sands," said Retterer, a Kennewick resident.

Along with poor road conditions, Miller said building one of three proposed alternate routes to Petersen Road is desirable because the county might have to spend another $1 million to replace a water pipeline that runs near Petersen.

Property owners have been unwilling to sell the needed right-of-way for the proposed roads, but Miller said the county would consider acquiring the property through eminent domain if it has to.

"We don't like doing that," he said. "We're continuing to look at alternatives that will work that will be less impact to farmers or anybody else."

The feds are expected to make a decision on which projects they will award money to in June, Hecox said.

While some applicants for highway administration funding are seeking money to build new roads, others are looking to build bridges or improve existing roads that have become outdated in national parks or other areas.

"We want to help as many people make roads as passable and as usable as they can be," Hecox said.

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