Rajneeshee commune could become wilderness

Associated Press/October 27, 2009

Antelope, Oregon - A swap involving land at the site of the former Rajneeshee commune could lead to the creation of two new wilderness areas in Central Oregon.

The Bulletin newspaper of Bend reports that a Christian-based summer camp is working on the exchange that would also make roughly 15,000 acres of popular hunting grounds accessible to the public.

The trade would need to be approved by Congress.

In the early 1980s, thousands of followers of the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh gathered on a 62,220-acre commune that spread across Wasco and Jefferson counties. The cult followers attempted to overtake local elections by poisoning local salad bars with salmonella culture.

The cult collapsed in 1985 and the land eventually became Young Life's Washington Family Ranch. Tens of thousands of teens have visited the property during the summer or on weekends, receiving Young Life's nondenominational Christian message.

The ranch, however, is intermingled with Bureau of Land Management parcels, and hunters often wander onto camp property. The swap would allow boundaries to be better defined, said Forrest Reinhardt, a land-use and entitlement consultant on the project for Young Life.

"It cleans up the borders and boundaries of the ranch, rather than having a ranch that looks like a checkerboard," Reinhardt said.

Under the proposal, the BLM would give 12,323 acres to Young Life in exchange for 8,821 acres. Two ranchers in the area also would be part of the land swap. One landowner would give the BLM 494 acres, for 594 acres in return. The other would give the BLM 1,057 acres in exchange for 1,158.

Although the number of acres don't match up, the land traded would be equal in monetary value.

The land the BLM would receive could help create two wilderness areas, called Horse Heaven and Coffin Rock, upon congressional approval.

"In the end, it's really about the wilderness protection and leaving high-quality habitat for a wide variety of species," said Aaron Kilgore, a coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association, which has been working on land-management issues along the Lower John Day River.

The Jefferson County commission agreed at its October meeting to write a letter supporting the swap and the creation of the wilderness areas, The Madras Pioneer reported.

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