Doug Conner of Pasco drives past a "No Trespassing" sign on Peterson Road to get into the Juniper Dunes Wilderness Area east of Pasco, where he rides his motorcycle.
He and other users listened Tuesday to a project they describe as "a long time coming" -- Franklin County's plan to take over two miles of the private road and provide legal public access for the first time since the wilderness area was designated in 1984.
The federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns Juniper Dunes, is contracting with Franklin County for the county to purchase and improve the first two miles of Peterson Road. The BLM has $700,000 for the project, which Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., helped secure.
Tim Fife, Franklin County public works director and engineer, told county commissioners that the project could cost almost $1 million if the county were to pave all two miles of the road.
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The county could cut the amount of the road it paves to trim the cost, he said.
He said the county will have a better idea of the cost after the project bids come in, Fife said. How much to pave can be determined then.
Commission Chairman Brad Peck said the county's first priority is to obtain legal access to Juniper Dunes, with paving a secondary priority.
Juniper Dunes, with its large sand dunes, has been a popular outdoor recreation area for decades.
Although it became a wilderness area in 1984, there never has been public access to it. Part of it is open to off-road vehicles and part of it is wilderness closed to all vehicles.
This year, about 32,238 visitors came to Juniper Dunes, according to the BLM.
"Public access is going to relieve the strain of the homeowners out there," said Earl Nettnin of Kennewick, regional director for Pacific Northwest 4-Wheel Drive Association.
Rick Burk of Kennewick said the proposal is a start to getting the access that has been needed for 30 years.
He suggested that Franklin County seek state funding from the state Recreation and Conservation Office for a gravel parking lot. Burk is a member of the Nonhighway and Off-Road Vehicle Activities Advisory Committee associated with the office.
Although making the first two miles of Peterson Road public will help, it won't be enough to provide full public access.
There are two more miles before the road reaches the Juniper Dunes boundary, and those miles cross a mix of public and private land, Mark Hatchel, BLM lands and realty specialist, told the Herald earlier this month.
Juniper Dunes attracts visitors from all over, but a lack of legal public access deters some, Conner said. That translates into less money from tourists spent in the Tri-Cities, Burk said.
Burk said he first went to Juniper Dunes in 1979 when his Columbia Basin College instructor took a class to the wilderness for an environmental science lesson.
Since then, he's been hiking, horseback riding and driving his motorcycle there.
Conner, a member of the Eastern Washington Dirt Riders Association, said club members frequently use the area.
In fact, one reason the club formed was to preserve public use of the area, said Burk, who also is a Dirt Riders member.
Those who use Peterson Road to access Juniper Dunes need to be respectful, Burk said. They should drive slowly and avoid kicking up dust onto private property.