Public lands are supposed to be just that — open for public recreation and activities.
So I’m sometimes left incredulous when state or federal officials move to restrict public activities on the land — and roads — owned by taxpayers.
Last week, I participated in an “expedition” of sorts into an area that clearly needs to be returned to its previous publicly accessible state. I’m talking about the ridge between Tunk Valley and the Omak.
If you hadn’t seen our Sunday extra, I wrote a somewhat first-hand story about the Okanogan Historical Society’s efforts to pinpoint the exact location of the infamous horse-kill site from which Dead Horse Canyon derives it’s name. (I was invited to tag along to document any find.)
The road into the area is blocked by heavy state Department of Natural Resources gates.
The upper reaches of the canyon, as well as Kilgore Canyon, Corral Lake, Bear Lake, Lockman Pass and other areas are accessible from the solidly constructed road passing through the gates. The road, which also traverses private property, connects to Tunk Valley Road northeast of Riverside.
But just try to use the road for anything more than hiking.
Two massive gates controlled by Natural Resources block the route. The second gate sports signs prohibiting motor vehicle traffic.
And while our expedition made the uphill hike along the road just fine, the route is clearly being used by motor vehicles, most likely Natural Resources officials, grazing lease holders and a handful of private property owners. After hiking the route, I’ve come to the conclusion the road should be returned to its previously open-for-public-use state.
The road was constructed on a rocky outcropping and is in better shape than the road I live on. Heck, it’s construction is sturdy enough to support logging trucks from a previous timber sale. There are signs for the sale in multiple locations along the route.
Interestingly, the Historical Society’s efforts to gain access to the road, just for a day of research, were blocked by Natural Resources officials who refused to open the route.
“The access you’re referring to is not off limits to the general public via foot, horseback or mountain bike if permission is obtained to cross private property before one reaches DNR managed land (which it appears you have done so),” Natural Resources’ South Okanogan District Manager Kevan Roberts wrote in an email to historical researcher Don Hruska.
According to Roberts, the road was closed “many years ago” to prevent damage to natural resources. But he only cites “valuable materials (rock).”
That’s a poor excuse for the closure of a public right-of-way and limited access to land owned by taxpayers. The rock along that road is generally no different than what is found in Tunk Valley.
I have personally made several calls to state-level Natural Resources offices to try to find out why state officials want the road closed. I am also trying to get an answer why the agency won’t assist in the Historical Society’s effort to mark an important site related to the region’s horse heritage.
I have yet to receive a single return call.
While we were in the backcountry, a Natural Resources employee unlocked the gate and drove a pickup truck carrying an ATV into the area. (I’m sure he was just doing his job.) But the gate, tire tracks, ATV and obvious other vehicle traffic sure make it appear as though the area has become a private recreation area for Natural Resources employees.
At a minimum, Natural Resources should open the gates for the legitimate research going on at the Historical Society. But if the agency really wanted to do the right thing, it would return the road for use by the public that owns it.
Roger Harnack is the editor and publisher of The Chronicle. He can be reached at 509-826-1110 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.