Deschutes County, others raise questions about trail

Video: Along the Oregon Desert Trail route

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Published Jan 11, 2014 at 12:01AM / Updated Jan 11, 2014 at 06:39AM

Harney County Judge Steve Grasty has questions about the planned Oregon Desert Trail, which would wind through the county along its 766-mile route through the Oregon Outback.

His questions include what type of federal environmental review will be done before the trail is officially designated, who will put up signs along the trail and the location of access points for emergency medical service. He’s put the questions together in a letter and gotten elected county leaders in Deschutes, Lake and Malheur counties this past week to sign it. The letter will go to the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It just seems to me that it would be appropriate for us to get together and have a conversation,” Grasty said.

Deschutes County Commissioner Alan Unger agreed.

“We should have a public discussion about this,” he said.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association, a Bend-based nonprofit, sent a letter of its own in early November to the same agencies. In it, the association — as well as the Oregon Sierra Club, America Hiking Society, Back Country Horsemen of Oregon, and American Whitewater — requests the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service designate the trail as a National Recreational Trail by connecting the existing Oregon High Desert National Recreation Trail and Fremont National Recreation Trail. The new trail would primarily cross land managed by the BLM and the Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, which is overseen by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

There would be scoping and public meetings before a designation is made, said Michael Campbell, associate state deputy director for the BLM in Portland.

“So there would be multiple points in time that we would be going out to the public and gathering information on the affected communities and user groups,” he said.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association supports the public process, said Brent Fenty, executive director of the association.

“Counties and towns along the way should be engaged about this,” he said.

The trail starts near Bend and passes through the Oregon towns of Paisley, Plush, Frenchglen, Fields and Rome, as well as Denio, Nev., according to ONDA. Fenty said hundreds of volunteers spent thousands of hours over the past three years checking out the planned route for the trail. The trail isn’t a beaten path like the Pacific Crest Trail, and the plan is not to make it one.

“It’s a mix of existing singletrack trails, two-track roads and cross-country travel,” Fenty said. “The intent has never been to develop a singletrack trail for the entire route.”

Late last spring and into last summer, Sage Clegg, an experienced long-distance trekker from Bend, became the first person to cover the full planned route. She did so in 36 days, from June 5 to July 11.

Fenty said the questions Grasty is asking will be answered in the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service reviews of the trail designation request, and the agencies will likely look to existing, similar trails for examples of how to potentially manage this one.

“What is being discussed here is not new,” Fenty said. “All these questions are questions that have been addressed with other trail systems.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com.