With another battle brewing at the Legislature over a potential footbridge across the Deschutes River south of Bend, the Bend Park & Recreation District wants to find a solution that appeals to both hikers and conservationists.
On Tuesday night, the district’s board of directors discussed the controversial House Bill 4029, which would preclude the park district from building a bridge across the Deschutes River at river mile 172, just downstream from Meadow Day Use Area on the Deschutes River Trail.
During the meeting, the board determined that it would oppose the bill, but added that a bridge is far from imminent. Board member Ted Schoenborn asked that the board pursue a third-party facilitator who would look at a variety of options to help connect the area to the park district’s trail system while ensuring the project doesn’t cause environmental damage.
“There is that recreation need, and I hope we can find a solution that represents both,” added board member Ellen Grover.
Schoenborn added that he wanted to kickstart a larger conversation, which would loop in the U.S. Forest Service, along with conservation groups, transportation agencies and representatives from Central Oregon’s conservation community.
“We can be the convener, but we certainly shouldn’t be the decider,” Schoenborn said.
The bill is the latest foray in a long-running battle over whether to build a bridge to the south of Bend. In 2012, Bend voters passed a bond to fund a variety of large park district projects, including the bridge. Last year, Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, authored a more specific bill that passed the state House of Representatives but not the Senate.
The newer bill, which currently lacks a chief sponsor, was introduced “at the request of House Interim Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources for Oregon Wild” earlier this year. In addition to prohibiting a bridge being built, the new bill mandates that state and federal agencies study and submit a list of alternate routes for a trail between Bend and Sunriver.
Erik Fernandez, wilderness program manager for Oregon Wild, said prior to the meeting that the Portland-based nonprofit is concerned about the impact a bridge could have on wildlife in the area. Fernandez said the presence of a bridge could lead to additional hiking and biking in a sensitive nature area and could harm a variety of animals, including protected species such as the Oregon spotted frog.
“The more people learn about the proposal, the more concerned they get,” he said.
Fernandez added that establishing the bridge in an area protected as part of the Deschutes River State Scenic Waterway could lead to the gradual erosion of protections provided by Oregon’s State Scenic Waterways program.
“This is a river that Central Oregonians care a lot about,” Fernandez said.
Nathan Hovekamp, park district board chair, called the tone of recent discussions about the bridge “regrettable,” and felt that the park district has been put on the defensive.
“There’s not a person here who feels that they don’t care about the river,” Hovekamp said.
The bill was assigned to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, where it will have a hearing Thursday. Additionally, both the Deschutes County Commission and the Bend City Council will discuss whether to support the park district’s stance during meetings on Wednesday.
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