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Wilderness wallows in rural county

  After months of considering whether to support the creation of a Badlands Wilderness about 20 miles east of Bend, Ore., the Deschutes County Board of Commissioners voted 3-0 in late March to do nothing, effectively leaving the proposal in limbo.

It could have been worse, says commission chair Tom DeWolf. "They can take solace in the fact we didn't vote to oppose the wilderness." DeWolf supports protecting the 37,000 acres of gnarled volcanic landscape as federal wilderness. But he says he reluctantly joined in the board's "no position" vote, since he and his colleagues didn't agree, and two votes were needed for action on the proposal.

Local citizens like the idea: a poll commissioned by the Oregon Natural Desert Association in February found that 69 percent of Deschutes County voters support wilderness designation. Hundreds testified at a hearing in late January, and most backed wilderness; three-quarters of the 1,572 cards and letters submitted to the commission were in support. Even the local mountain-biking organization supports the proposal, although bikes aren't allowed in wilderness areas (HCN, 6/7/04: Mountain bikers go wild). The wilderness opponents are led by off-road vehicle users.

Oregon's congressional delegation is reluctant to introduce a wilderness bill without the backing of local politicians. A spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., says his boss won't do so without local political support. Second District Rep. Greg Walden, R, says the commission vote "tells me there's a lack of consensus either for or against this legislation."

In the meantime, the Badlands has temporary protection as a wilderness study area. The BLM management plan that was implemented this spring closed Route 8, a dirt road running through the heart of the Badlands, to all vehicles. Bill Marlett, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, says he's heartened by the way the area is now managed. Still, he's disappointed by the county commissioners' lack of action: "We pitched them a softball," he says, "and they whiffed."