Off-leash trails a smart, necessary option for Bend

Published Jun 19, 2013 at 05:00AM

Given the recent Bend Park & Recreation District board of directors election, it is timely to revisit the district’s ban on off-leash trail access. BPRD has devoted significant staff time and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop 65 miles of trails. Many constituents seek off-leash trail access, yet that is not allowed on any existing trail, nor has BPRD indicated plans for access on future trails.

H.L. Mencken observed, “For every complex problem there is a simple solution ... and it is wrong.” Bans are simple solutions to complex problems, and they are wrong because they wishfully assume off-leash trail users will substitute their activity — use a leash, use the off-leash areas or go outside the district. Research indicates forced substitution can impose significant costs on recreationists while generating resentment and failing to resolve the issue.

Imagine if the Forest Service shut down all cross-country skiing and told people to downhill ski at Mt. Bachelor instead. After all, each of these activities involves skiing on snow. Many Bendites would (illegally) cross-country ski in the forest rather than be limited to downhill skiing.

Substitution isn’t working in the off-leash trail context. Why would so many risk a very expensive encounter with police if good substitutes existed?

There are many reasons for allowing off-leash access on one or more (not all) trails in the district. These could be current de facto off-leash trails or new trails constructed and maintained by dog owners.

Regarding human health, authors in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine write that “acquiring a dog should be explored as an intervention to get people more physically active.” As noted in Health and Place, “Public open space that supports dog owners should be linear in design (to keep owners walking) ... include free-running areas for dogs ... and (be) within a 30-minute walk from home.”

Dogs typically need more exercise than humans. If we wish to treat our pets humanely, we need options beyond postage-stamp backyards.

Regarding equity, some residents only use parks to walk their dog off-leash on trails. They pay to provide opportunities for others, while not having legal options themselves. The needs of off-leash recreationists should be treated equally with the needs of others. That doesn’t mean every park acre is off-leash, any more than every acre has a baseball field. It does mean that real options are provided and that other recreationists aren’t prioritized over off-leash recreationists.

In terms of practicality, off-leash trail use will continue, just as alcohol consumption continued during Prohibition. Before there were OLAs in Bend city limits, then-Police Chief Andy Jordan recognized the problem — his officers would ticket for off-leash dogs but, when asked, they couldn’t provide legal alternatives. That led him to endorse legal options.

How should we deal with irresponsible dog owners? We can learn from the example of drunken driving. Rather than ban all driving, society devoted resources to changing behavior and punishing irresponsible drivers. Education and law enforcement are both critical. The result? Per capita drunken driving fatalities decreased 49 percent from 1991 to 2011.

The Bulletin recently referenced Boulder, Colo., as a rationale for continuing the ban. I’m glad The Bulletin looked at experience elsewhere, and I encourage more of that. However, I draw a different conclusion regarding Boulder. I see a community that values its off-leash citizens enough to innovate and address the issue rather than “putting it in the too-hard basket.” That willingness likely helps Boulder be more successful than Bend in other arenas as well.

Boulder provides off-leash trail opportunities because it recognizes their importance. When concerns arose, it pursued options to sustain access while punishing irresponsible behavior.

Bend banned trail use. This punishes responsible off-leash recreationists, who pay taxes for public land they cannot access. BPRD fails to meet a significant community need, and the police department issues expensive tickets, with one result being resentment toward BPRD and the police department.

Which response do you prefer?

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