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Purchase will transfer land to BLM

PORTLAND — A conservation group has bought a second large ranch along the John Day River in Central Oregon that could eventually provide public access to a remote, scenic part of the state.

The Western Rivers Conservancy bought the Murtha Ranch at Cottonwood Canyon in 2008, and then sold it to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department for what's now the second-largest state park, at 8,000 acres.

The organization recently bought a ranch 40 miles upstream, at Thirtymile Creek in Gilliam County, near Condon, The Oregonian reports.

The ranch has all-weather private road access to the John Day River at a point where it runs in a 1,000-foot-deep canyon, but access is now available only by paying a fee. It's on a 70-mile stretch of the river with a federal designation as wild and scenic.

The Rattray Ranch had been owned for three generations by the family that homesteaded in the 1880s, passing it down to six sisters who sold it.

The purchase price was not disclosed, but an Eastern Oregon real estate company had listed it at $7 million.

The property comes with grazing rights to 10,530 acres of adjacent land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Named for a fur trapper, the John Day at 281 miles is the second-longest undammed river in the continental United States.

It rises in the southern part of the Blue Mountains, runs westward and then turns to the northwest, cutting across the Columbia Plateau to empty into the Columbia River.

The two conservancy purchases are on the lower part of the river, popular with rafters and anglers.

The organization hopes to sell the land to the Bureau of Land Management.

President Sue Doroff said that may take three to five years, after which the agency could develop a public access plan. The conservancy plans to sell land used to grow wheat to a private owner.

It has no agreement with the federal agency, though, as it did with the state parks department before buying the Cottonwood Canyon property.

"Thirtymile Creek is a very important cold water tributary of the lower John Day River for salmon and steelhead," Doroff said. "We want to protect and restore it in perpetuity."

She said the section the river near the ranch has wilderness qualities, and eventual public access would allow boaters a 40-mile trip downstream to Cottonwood Canyon, avoiding challenging rapids. The uplands has one of Oregon's largest herds of bighorn sheep, with 600 animals.