MILTON-FREEWATER — John Ehart wants nothing more than to be able to get to his family cabin.
Ehart, 92, has owned the well-kitted home way up the South Fork of the Walla Walla River for 28 years, even longer than he and wife, Bonnie, have been wed.
For years the couple, sometimes with adult children and grandchildren in tow, drove to their property to play and relax, but also to maintain all the buildings.
The cabin, however, has essentially ceased to exist for them, the Eharts said, thanks to nature and government bureaucracy.
When John Ehart arrived in Milton-Freewater in 1970, it was to manage the new Griggs department store on Highway 11. He later bought the Nature Gardens flower shop in the center of town, owning it for 35 years.
Spending time in the wilderness was a favorite way to recharge, he said, and investing in cabin ownership made sense.
Until the 2020 flood swept over much of the Walla Walla Valley area, taking out the primary means Eharts and others have used for decades to reach the primitive area above Harris Park, some 14 miles southeast of Milton-Freewater.
Government overreach, plus a lack of accountability for the Bureau of Land Management, already had created access challenges and now is keeping the roadless situation stagnant, the Eharts and others say.
The area in question begins just beyond where public vehicle access in Harris Park — which Umatilla County owns and manages — ends at a locked gate. By federal order, parts of Trail No. 3225 and Burnt Cabin Trail were completely closed to public use after the flooding, under threat of a fine up to $5,000 and/or up to six months of incarceration.
That order was renewed in April 2022.
Those waters washed out the road leading to the BLM’s portion of the South Fork Walla Walla trailhead, along with more of Trail No. 3225.
That road, trails and trail facilities were heavily damaged then and are not being maintained now, BLM officials in the Vale district have said.
While the land is inside the Umatilla National Forest, the BLM has managed about 3 miles of the trail tracing over the national park parcel under a 1992 environmental plan.
By 1994, some 2,000 acres east of Milton-Freewater was designated as an “area of critical environmental concern,” known in agency language as an ACEC.
The move was made to prevent further deterioration of the area’s many natural and vulnerable resources, BLM staff said.
The private landowner’s access agreement, affecting the property owners such as the Eharts, was created in 2003. At that time, it put into place rules around motor vehicle use on the trail.
Vital, vibrant, contentious
There is no disagreement between the government and landowners on one point: This corner of Northeastern Oregon is stunningly beautiful and vibrant with life.
According to federal and county officials, the narrow canyon headed by Harris Park and surrounded by steep hillsides is a vital recreation area for many people in Eastern Oregon and Washington.
It is also an important fisheries habitat, area of cultural concern to local tribes, home to beautiful views and host to a riparian ecosystem in the soil and vegetation along the river.
Frank Spencer more than a century ago homesteaded the 160 acres above Harris Park, now home to private cabins, including the one the Eharts own.
Spencer carried the needed supplies on his back up the steep trail and built the access road to his property in 1906, Bonnie Ehart said.
There is another approach to the former homestead, beginning at Deduct Spring at a higher elevation. It provides entry to the upper end of Trail No. 3225, but it’s an “extremely treacherous trail,” one that cannot be traversed by most people, Bonnie said, particularly those who have aged out of hiking over boulders and fallen trees.
Built in 1956, their home of about 1,000 square feet runs on a full solar water system and a generator for power. There is a bathroom and full kitchen in the house, with a large shop and a log bunkhouse nearby on the private, deeded property they faithfully pay taxes on, the Eharts said.
Until about 1996, homeowners had year-round motor vehicle access to the road that carried them home, an allotment that eventually got reduced to six weeks a year.
Without that road, people have to hike or bike to the spot on unmaintained trails or through the river. That makes it impossible for the Eharts to drive in with supplies, they said.
If the BLM refuses to rebuild the road, the couple said it’s unlikely they’ll set foot on their property again.
“It’s useless to us right now,” Bonnie, 77, said as her husband nodded in agreement.
Generations of use
Larry Widner, owner of Napa Auto Parts in Milton-Freewater, is equally frustrated.
His parents bought 20 acres from the Demaris family, descendants of Spencer, in 1950.
In those years, his parents had to cross the Walla Walla River 23 times in a pickup to reach their land where they built a 1,200 square-foot cabin with trees they’d logged on the land, Widner recalled.
His dad was a World War II veteran and a few of the senior Widner’s wartime buddies also purchased land on which to build their American dream.
Some of the landowners are veterans of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, Larry Widner said.
“The BLM doesn’t care that these veterans can’t get to their cabins,” he said.
The federal government is all talk and no walk when it comes to public lands, he added.
First there are studies, then there are plans, then comes a quest for funding. In the end, real improvements to public access rarely come, except in the case of major tourist attractions such as Yellowstone National Park, Widner said.
“What they’d really like is to have no one go up there, ever. Then they don’t have to manage (the land),” he said. “Unless the government gets off the pot, they are never going to fix the trail.”
After the flood Widner was part of a group of homeowners who worked on repairing some of Trail No. 3225, “with BLM’s permission,” he said.
“But the guy who gave me permission retired. Now the new folks are not happy we repaired the road,” he said. “We were going to be given tickets for illegal trespass.”
The animus between federal officials and homeowners is significant, Widner said, and it’s painful to juxtapose today’s reality on the memories of the past.
“When I was a young person, my family went there every weekend. That’s where I was basically raised, where I learned to fish, hunt, ride horses and motorcycles,” Widner said.
People were and remain good stewards of the area, he said.
Even the six weeks of access to his family cabin — put in place when the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation reintroduced salmon to the South Fork section of the Walla Walla River — was better than the zero days now, he pointed out.
“We need access for fire protection. Homes have to be winterized,” he said. “We have an investment there; we pay taxes on it.”
Umatilla County’s public works director, Tom Fellows, oversees management of Harris Park and said he is well aware of the tension surrounding the washed-away trail.
Although other routes into the former homestead have been in place for a long time, the reality is those steep paths are feasible for few people in summer, at that.
“The way I interpret it, for lack of a better term, the BLM virtually has these people landlocked out of their property,” said Fellows, who has worked for Umatilla County for almost 30 years. “Unless they can walk up and wade the river in a couple of locations.”
The homesteaded property has been privately owned since the time of settlers. Now it is surrounded by BLM land that once belonged to the Harris family of the renowned Harris Pine Mills and for which the multi-use park is named, Fellows said.
The land eventually ended up in federal control and, over time, there were agreements between BLM, Umatilla National Forest and Umatilla County that Forest Service staff would maintain Trail No. 3225.
“It tied into their trail system, and it was important to have that connectivity,” Fellows said. “But the flood washed it out and BLM said, ‘Well, your trail no longer exists and we’re not going to let you make it elsewhere.’”
The stringent federal environmental rules make it difficult for homeowners to accomplish anything on their properties or the trail — even setting a fence post, he said.
Post-flood, county and forest service crews have repaired their own roads and bridges to reopen public land to the public. The old logging road had been in reasonable shape before the 2020 flood and everyone assumed it would be made so again, Fellows said.
Now he’s not sure it will, he said, noting getting answers from any federal agency is difficult. Nor does the issue seem to be high priority for the relevant politicians.
None of this situation sits well with Ben Burr.
The federal action — or inaction — around Trail No. 3225 is part of the opaque ways the government gets more land, said Burr, who is working with the South Fork landowners to get their property access restored and protected.
Balance between humans, environment
Burr is executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a grassroots organization founded in 1987 and dedicated to responsible and balanced use of public lands and water for outdoor recreation.
The Idaho-based group does so primarily through lobbying efforts and court actions, not through protests and standoffs, Burr said.
“Were we at the gates of the (Ammon) Bundy case? No. But we have some of the same concerns,” he said.
The coalition’s arsenal, however, consists of public education efforts, working with the media and mobilizing people to engage with their government, Burr said. “You can’t build a reform movement if people don’t fully understand how to do so.”
He became deeply aware of public land issues while working in politics in Washington, D.C., for Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee, he said.
Burr said he thinks there are better paths forward in trying to manage public lands, including adding accountability and oversight of BLM and other federal agencies.
There is very little now, he added, and the system seems designed to repel public engagement.
Homeowners in wilderness areas are up against an unfair system, one tilted heavily and unreasonably toward environmentalists, according to the coalition.
Burr said it is not unusual for the government to make land unusable to property owners, then take it over or buy it up at a pittance.
The organization’s vision statement says it favors a balanced, tolerant and equitable approach that includes shared use and common sense.
People can send all the angry emails they want to BLM officials, and it just allows that staff to check a box, Burr alleges.
“The feedback routine is designed to create a gatekeeping routine,” he said.
Yet those who don’t participate in decisions being made about their land lose their right to engage in the process, he said.
That’s where the anger begins to build as landowners feel caught in a cycle of shrouded bureaucracy.
Government records show Boise Cascade was granted the right to build the road and four bridges in 1978 for hauling logs off Blalock Mountian and maintaining it during that use. The company, however, has no immediate plans for logging its South Fork land, according to BLM’s documents.
That logging road attracted those who wanted to build their forest retreats by using the developed road system. Here and there a vehicle had to cross a river, but Burr said the riverbed offers a substrate thick with rocks that would keep a truck’s tires off the river bottom and away from fish.
By 1976, roads crossing federal lands had to be permitted through a process, Burr said, calling that “the watershed year.”
In the late 1990s the BLM acquired the area surrounding the homestead acreage, one of a number of “orphaned” parcels unconnected to other federal public land. It was then the “area of critical environmental concern” label was applied, he said.
“Which is just a way of laundering land, taking it from public access to something the public can’t use anymore,” he said.
At that time, criteria for the ACEC label were loose and arbitrary, and not the right tool for protecting fish habitat, one of the stated goals of the tribes and BLM, Burr said.
The coalition is supportive of fish runs being restored by the tribes and Burr said he respects the effort. But he is confident real conversation could mitigate concerns on all sides.
Instead of using environmental science and an outdated management plan like a hammer, a move Burr calls a “purely political decision,” talking with the discontented homeowners would yield better cooperation, he said.
Those property owners have cooperated with the government in the past, trying to meet the BLM in its policies and rules. Fairness and equity are two of the values of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, he said.
Reassessing through modern lens
Effectively, while restricted use of the road and area remains in place, it is all water under the bridge at this point.
The 2020 flood opened the door to revisiting the area management plan, BLM officials said.
Much has happened since that plan was implemented 30 years ago, said Sandy Tennyson, a field officer with BLM’s Baker City, Oregon, office in the Vale District.
“We’ve come a long way … Especially with recreation,” she said.
When COVID-19 shut down most options for entertainment and vacationing, people everywhere turned to the outdoors, Tennyson said.
Many of BLM’s sites, once tucked away from casual use, have been discovered by new fans of biking, hunting, dirt biking and other pursuits over the past three years, and the area adjacent to Harris Park is no exception.
“This spot is a great place for folks to get on the trail, it’s important,” said Tennyson, calling it a beautiful oasis.
Recreation is close to her heart, she added.
Getting to the spot where the homeowners have property is not simple, Tennyson acknowledged.
There are at least three areas where the trail of any kind disappears and a hiker must hug the shoreline, she said.
This past fall her office began taking a fresh look at how to oversee the area.
That starts with a National Environmental Policy Act review, a multi-step process that requires BLM to consider all aspects of whatever action it takes. Along with gathering public input, the federal land agency must disclose the environmental impact of its decisions to everyone, said Larisa Bogardus, public information officer for the BLM Vale District.
Public input was gathered at open houses in Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater in November, yielding 82 comments, 49 form letters and nine letters from other agencies, including the Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council.
Those opinions are vital, Tennyson pointed out. “Because we don’t have all the answers. We’ll use those comments to come up with alternatives. This really is public driven.”
Options could include replacing the road as it was, putting a road in another location or taking no action at all, Tennyson said.
Her office does respond to calls and emails regarding concerns about BLM’s decisions, she said, pointing out an outside consultant was hired to help resolve conflict and conference calls have been held with the South Fork property owners to discuss their situation.
Work is being done with Umatilla County’s board of commissioners to bring the county on as a “cooperating agency.”
Such a status gives officials elected by the public “substantial” influence in land use and management decisions made by federal agencies.
That tool can help local governments in rural counties such as Umatilla protect the interests of public grazing lands, an important economic factor in rural life, for example.
“That gets them in the same room,” Tennyson explained. “To be at the table with other federal agencies.”
Umatilla County can gain a seat at that table at any time now, Bogardus said.
For the moment, BLM officials are continuing their environmental assessment of the agency’s section of Trail No. 3225. The hope is to have a draft of their findings ready for public review this summer and a path forward finalized in the fall, Bogardus said.
If commissioners choose not to do so, they can still participate in the federal review process, she added.
As of yet, there have been no cost calculations or funding sources considered for replacing the missing road section; such tabulation wouldn’t happen unless the environmental analysis supports that action, BLM officials said.
Ultimately a realistic management plan must be put in place, not the “management by no management” method being used, Umatilla County Commissioner Dan Dorran said.
“Thousands of people use that property, it’s not just the landowners,” he said.
John Ehart is doing what he can to see the issue resolved while he’s still alive.
“This is for the good of our whole community,” he said.
As for their inaccessible cabin off Trail No. 3225, the value is far beyond dollars, Ehart added.
“It was to be a legacy to our children,” he said. “And our children’s children.”