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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Juniper Dunes getting restroom facilities


By Joe Chapman, Herald staff writer
There's no sanctioned way to get to the Juniper Dunes area, but once you're there you'll soon have some place where you can, well, go.
The federal government has owned the area for as long as it's been in the United States, but come June, for the first time, it'll have a permanent toilet. The Bureau of Land Management plans to install at least one, possibly two, vault restroom buildings on the site.
Until now, the bureau hasn't put anything more than a few kiosks and trail markers in the 19,000-acre Juniper Dunes area. BLM has contingency plans for installing picnic tables, shelters, grills and trash cans, but it won't move on any of those improvements as long as road access to the dunes is an unresolved issue.
"That would look like we were really trying to ... attract more visitors," said Mike Shannahan, BLM ranger. "So it is politically sensitive. But we're adding the toilets because that's for sanitation."
Without doing anything to "attract more visitors," the dunes already draw throngs of visitors who find it an appealing place to ride off-road vehicles and horses, hike and camp.
The dunes average 1,000 visitors each weekend from September to May, tapering off during the hottest months of the year. Last weekend, about 1,200 people, maybe more, were out there, Shannahan estimated.
Most of them enter the area by taking Peterson Road four miles north from Pasco-Kahlotus Road. But the road is privately owned and maintained, and there have been occasional controversies in the past when one or more of the owners have cut off public access.
Although the road's status hasn't stopped the traffic, visitors to the dunes would welcome Franklin County or the federal government following through with proposals to buy or reconstruct the road.
It was recently graded but still has a few bumps and dips. And, perhaps ironically, Juniper Dunes off-roaders like a smooth road for hauling their equipment in.
"They oughta just try to get somebody to fix the road coming in here -- jeez," said Cameron Murphy, 32, of Pendleton, who was riding off-road motorcycles and four-wheelers with friends Friday afternoon.
He'd bought a 2006 Yamaha 250 a week earlier and was visiting Juniper Dunes for the first time in 10 years, he said.
"I love it. There's a lot more trails than there ever used to be," he said.
Riders young and old alike can lose themselves in the trails between the sagebrush bushes for quite a while, exploring about 4,500 acres in the western portion of the dunes where off-road vehicles are allowed. The eastern portion of the BLM land is designated wilderness where vehicle access is prohibited.
Visitors are just required to follow a few key rules, such as wearing helmets and making sure any vehicle that goes off the main road has a whip mast and safety flag to increase its visibility. Vehicles also are supposed to have spark arrestors on their exhaust systems to prevent brush fires and valid license plates or registration tabs.
Children must have adult supervision to ride.
In the 19 years Shannahan has patrolled Juniper Dunes, there hasn't been a fatal accident that he knows of. But in a high-risk activity like riding off-road vehicles, accidents can happen even to those being careful.
A rider who broke his neck April 2 was airlifted out but was fortunate not to be paralyzed, Shannahan said.
Although not legally required, it's also a very good idea not to ride alone, he said.
BLM rangers, state Fish & Wildlife officers and Franklin County sheriff's deputies routinely patrol for alcohol violations such as driving while intoxicated and underage drinking.
Congress designated a portion of Juniper Dunes a national wilderness in 1984. Its name comes from being the northernmost place in the country where juniper trees and sand dunes mix.

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