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.
Trail No. 3225 extends past the Burnt Cabin Trail, which was reopened at the end of October with installation of a new bridge to replace the one lost in the so-called 100-year flood that raged through that area three years ago.
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 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.