In the contentious, ongoing discussion about a bill that would block a bridge across the Deschutes River south of Bend, the park district is looking for ways to span the divide.
“We’re going into this with more of an open mind,” said Don Horton, executive director of the park district.
On Tuesday evening, the Bend Park & Recreation District approved a resolution supporting an effort to comprehensively examine the section of the Deschutes River where the bridge would be placed, just downstream from Meadow Day Use Area on the Deschutes River Trail.
The resolution would establish a community process, bringing in conservationists, hikers and other stakeholders to discuss ways of balancing the need for trails in the area with the needs of fish and wildlife in the area. A bridge would be one possible solution.
The process would be monitored by an unaffiliated third-party.
Additionally, the board agreed to abide by the decisions that come out of the process and to put any development in the area on hold until it has concluded.
“The District understands that a community process may not lead to a bridge across the Deschutes River at or near the location in question,” the resolution reads. “Conversely, the District would hope that other participants accept the possibility that a bridge …may stand out as the preferred alternative.”
The resolution grew out of a conversation from a prior board meeting, in which board member Ted Schoenborn pushed for a third party to facilitate discussions. Horton, Schoenborn and other representatives from the district visited Salem to testify on House Bill 4029, designed to block a potential bridge in the area.
Schoenborn said the resolution reflects a willingness to work with the community to find a solution locally, rather than at the state level.
“We’re really committed to a community-based local solution,” he said. “And we are willing to live with whatever that community-based solution will be.”
HB 4029 would preclude the park district from building a bridge on that stretch of the river, and would require the State Parks and Recreation Department to study alternate routes for a trail connecting Bend and Sunriver. The bill, which lacks a chief sponsor, moved out of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee last week, after the committee voted 8-1 to send it to the full House of Representatives on Thursday.
While the bill is relatively recent, the battle over whether the park district will be able to build a bridge over this section of the Deschutes River has been brewing for a while. In 2017, Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, introduced a similar bill that passed the state House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate.
Erik Fernandez, wilderness program manager for Oregon Wild, said the environmental nonprofit is pushing for the bill in order to preserve the natural habitat for wildlife in the area. While opponents of the bill have argued that a bridge could reduce impacts on the environment, Fernandez said that takes a narrow view of disturbance in the area, adding that a bridge would attract more visitors to that stretch of the river.
Despite that, Fernandez said the nonprofit is willing to work with the park district, provided the process abides by Oregon’s Scenic Waterways program, which classifies that portion of the river as a scenic river area, impeding the construction of new bridges.
The resolution acknowledged prior conversation with the state parks department “about whether to alter scenic waterway rules.”
Schoenborn added that the resolution would be rendered moot if HB 4029 is signed into law. The bill will be heard by the Joint Ways & Means Committee, though no meetings or hearings are scheduled.
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