Elk NetworkBear Creek – onX Public Access Project

Conservation , onX Public Access | January 7, 2021

Sell off public land? Not here.

The Wallowa Range goes by many names, one being the “Swiss Alps of Oregon” for its lofty crown that includes the 9,845-foot Matterhorn.

But hikers, hunters and horsepackers know these mountains as the Eagle Cap, Oregon’s largest designated wilderness at more than 360,000 acres.

Deep in its core, tiny Bear Lake springs to life in an alpine cirque. From there it becomes Bear Creek, tumbling north down a glacier-carved canyon. Spring Chinook (king salmon), bull trout and redband trout still spawn in its waters, and a footpath traces its length for all 16 miles from the Bear Creek trailhead at the U.S. Forest Service’s Boundary Campground. That, too, is an apt name as it’s perched at the edge of this public treasure before private land takes over below.

Yet that boundary has long held a splinter, which 10 years ago began to fester.

Just 300 yards west of the trailhead, a 158-acre slice of state land juts a full mile into national forest above Bear Creek. Oregon Division of State Lands deemed this parcel as surplus and began preparing to sell it. To stave off the threat of private development, diminished habitat and eroded public access, the Forest Service sprinted to try to buy this inholding.

“Boundary Campground stays busy, and in the fall, it’s packed with hunters,” says Karen Gamble, Forest Service realty specialist for northeast Oregon.

Sold off into private hands, that skinny mile would likely have become a fenced barrier to anyone heading uphill from this access point to the grassy slopes and benches above studded with centuries-old ponderosa pines.

“Every time I go on that parcel I see deer, elk and game sign all over the place,” Gamble says. “Wildlife just love it.”

When public agencies buy or sell land, it’s a complex process, and this project involved both. To keep this opportunity from slipping away, the Forest Service approached RMEF about purchasing the parcel to hold while it navigated red tape and tried to secure scarce Land and Water Conservation Funds. Bill Richardson, RMEF’s lands program manager, jumped at the chance.

“We love to be this kind of matchmaker,” he says. “And in this case, it was in more ways than one. The land was a split estate, with mineral rights divided from surface rights. RMEF brokered purchase of both, which we combined before selling it as one unit to the Forest Service.”

Richardson says the parcel sits in one of Oregon’s best elk hunting areas where rugged wilderness creates the rare combination of big bulls and plentiful tags that don’t require a long wait to draw like nearby trophy units. “It’s at the heart of the Blue Mountains. Just a great spot.”

Gamble, who retired in December after 35 years with the Forest Service, says “I had no idea before I took this position how hard RMEF works to help these kinds of acquisitions become a reality. I appreciate it so much, and am thrilled I got to be a part of this before my retirement.”