A long-standing problem with public access to Juniper Dunes is forcing Franklin County to get creative in its decades-old quest to provide a route to the area that doesn't require visitors to trespass on private property.
Juniper Dunes is 19,600-acre Bureau of Land Management property 18 miles north of Pasco that is beautiful by desert standards. And it provides some rare authorized outdoor recreation areas for popular activities. It is divided into three sections:
w Juniper Dunes Wilderness -- The 7,100-acre wilderness area, designated in 1984, is fenced. Motorized and mechanized use (including bicycles and game carts) is strictly prohibited within the wilderness area.
w OHV "Open" Area -- A 3,920-acre area designated as "open" to off-highway vehicles. Cross-country travel is allowed throughout the open area.
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w ACEC -- A 8,620-acre Area of Critical Environmental Concern designated for "limited" OHV use, which means visitors must use designated trails. Because no OHV routes have been designated in this area, OHV use is not allowed.
But there's one big problem: Juniper Dunes is a big chunk of public land that is surrounded entirely by private property. Over the years, area farmers have alternated between allowing the public to use private roads to access the area and closing them with roadblocks when they tired of bad behavior from visitors. Franklin County and the BLM have been trying since 1986 to find a permanent solution.
With the county pushing for a way for citizens to enjoy Juniper Dunes without infringing on local property owners, the BLM allocated $716,000 for improvements to make the private Peterson Road, the most logical route to the dunes, a public road in 2011.
But that plan, like others in the past, ran into a snag when the county discovered big irrigation pipelines underground. The cost to move those pipes alone was estimated at $1 million. The whole project came in at $2.8 million.
So the county once again started looking for alternative routes to Juniper Dunes, a place popular with hikers, horseback riders and off-road vehicle enthusiasts who all have designated areas to play without much interaction.
Now the county's engineer has come up with three routes, and any one would cost about $1 million less than the Peterson Road project. One option would extend a new road from the Pasco Kahlotus Highway and would cost about $2 million.
Two other options cost about $1.8 million and involve extending a new road from East Foster Wells Road to link up with Peterson Road and lead into the dunes. The main difference in the two plans is the proximity of the road to a new home and barn in the area. We'd vote for having the road placed the farthest from the home site, if possible.
Commissioners, as commissioners often do, had a few ideas of their own and asked the engineer to look at an option from Kruse Road before they make a decision. They applauded the lower price tag on the proposed alternative routes.
When commissioners reach a decision, they'll apply for a grant from the Federal Highway Administration that they hope would cover additional costs over the BLM grant.
We hope commissioners don't linger too long on making a decision. Juniper Dunes access is an issues they're all very familiar with. With spring right around the corner, it's time to solve the problem once and for all.