Swap would preserve Rajneeshee land

PORTLAND — Thousands of acres of Central Oregon land once occupied by the infamous Rajneeshpuram commune would be protected under legislation introduced Thursday by Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

The Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven Wilderness Act would preserve almost 16,500 acres of land as wilderness.

About half of it would come from a proposed land swap between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and a non-denominational Christian organization that runs a summer camp at the former ranch once controlled by followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

The bill to approve the land exchange and create two wilderness areas would expand camping, fishing, hiking and hunting opportunities for the public while protecting habitat for elk, deer, bighorn sheep and fish. Wyden, in a statement, said the legislation will "preserve these natural treasures for generations to come and will serve as a hopeful postscript to the saga of the Rajneeshee colony."

In the early 1980s, thousands of red-robed followers of the late guru came from around the world to a ranch outside the small community of Antelope. Armed guards patrolled the commune perimeter while inside the guru was cheered while he drove Rolls Royce automobiles given to him by followers.

After taking over the Antelope City Council, some leaders of the commune plotted to take over the local county government in 1984, spiking a salad bar in The Dalles with salmonella in an effort to incapacitate non-Rajneeshee voters. The act of bioterrorism sickened 750 people but did not unseat the government.

The cult collapsed the following year and the land eventually became Young Life's Washington Family Ranch, which attracts 700 teenage campers each week during the summer.

The ranch, however, is intertwined with BLM parcels, and better-defined boundaries will improve land management, said Forrest Reinhardt, a consultant working on the project for Young Life.

Reinhardt compared the ranch site to a pepperoni pizza, with BLM land playing the part of the pepperoni. He said hunters unaware of the boundaries often stray onto Young Life property, putting campers at risk.

"Guys with guns were getting closer and closer to the camp, not a good thing," he said.

Under the proposal, the BLM would trade 12,323 acres to Young Life in exchange for 8,821 acres. Though the acreage is lopsided, the swap would be equal in value because the government is getting land along the John Day River, which is worth more than high desert rangeland. As part of the legislation, an appraiser will examine the parcels to confirm the trade is equitable.

Two local ranchers are also part of the deal. One landowner would give the BLM 1,057 acres in exchange for 1,158. The other trade involves less than 600 acres headed each way.

The proposed Cathedral Rock Wilderness area, on the west side of the John Day, would encompass 8,686 acres. The Horse Heaven Wilderness area, southwest of Cathedral Rock, would encompass 7,798 acres.

"In the end, it's really about protecting this amazing place for future generations and for native fish and wildlife like wild salmon and steelhead," said Aaron Killgore, a coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

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