PASCO — Franklin County has taken the first official step to making the Juniper Dunes Wilderness Area accessible to the public.
The commissioners Wednesday unanimously approved starting the process to transform the privately owned Peterson Road into a county road.
The federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns Juniper Dunes, is contracting with Franklin County to buy and improve the first two miles of the road. The BLM has $716,500 for the project, which Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., helped secure.
Mark Hatchel, BLM lands and realty specialist, said the official award of the grant to Franklin County last week is a major step toward getting access. That means the county now can use the money to design the road, buy right of way and build it.
Initial estimates put those costs at about $1 million.
Juniper 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.
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, Hatchel said.
The bureau is in the preliminary process of trying to get access to more of the road.
Now, County Public Works Director Tim Fife said he will analyze the project for the first two miles and provide commissioners with an engineer's report in the next few months.
Commissioners then will hold a public hearing before making a decision.
Fife said the county also needs to negotiate to buy right of way for the road.
Commissioner Rick Miller said the county isn't sure yet exactly how far the $716,500 from the federal government will stretch.
That's something Fife said he will be figuring as part of the engineering report, as well as whether to pave the road or lay gravel.
The county may not have enough money to pave all of the first two miles, Fife said.
Fife estimates it could take a year to complete the project.
Miller said residents need to be patient in the meantime.