On Thursday, the three Democrats on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee did something for thousands of southwest Bend residents that their representative, Republican Knute Buehler, will not: It stuck up for them in the fight over a long-planned pedestrian and bicycle bridge crossing the Deschutes River.

On a party line vote, with two Republicans in opposition, the committee amended a piece of legislation engineered by Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, on behalf of Tim ­Phillips, a state Republican power broker and generous Buehler supporter. Whisnant’s bill, which cleared the Legislature’s lower chamber last month, would have imposed an ironclad prohibition on pedestrian bridges over a long stretch of the Deschutes in and near Bend — including the stretch that runs past Phillips’ house. Bridges are prohibited by rule under the state’s Scenic Waterways Act, but the act’s prohibition functions, by design, as a one-year waiting period rather than an outright ban.

Thursday’s amendment, supported by officials with Bend’s park district, would prohibit bridges by law within city limits, thereby precluding the bridge-related property condemnation Phillips claims to fear. Meanwhile, it would remove the scenic waterway prohibition on bridges at a location just outside the city preferred by the park district.

The result seems to give everyone what they want: Phillips and his neighbors wouldn’t have to worry about condemnation, which the district isn’t proposing in any case; and those of us who live in high-density neighborhoods across the river eventually might gain convenient access via the Deschutes River Trail to an extensive Forest Service trail system that is now a circuitous journey away.

As positive as Thursday’s development was, the newly amended bill is still a long way from passage, and the legislative session is drawing quickly to a close. Its chances surely would improve with enthusiastic support from Central Oregon’s entire delegation, led by Buehler, who represents the vast majority of those affected by this dispute.

But will he?

Nope.

I asked Buehler’s office Thursday whether he supported the compromise hammered out in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Here’s his response:

“I do not support the amendment to limit protection of the scenic waterway. As I mentioned previously, both the Community Solutions study and subsequent decision by Oregon Parks and Recreation Department to prohibit a bridge over the scenic water area raise serious concerns. This follows an earlier ODFW decision rejecting the proposal. Subsequently, a host of other sensitive environmental, cultural and wildlife concerns have been brought to our attention. These issues need further vetting.”

Buehler’s response suggests two possibilities. One possibility is that Buehler’s a more ardent environmentalist than the three Democrats who control the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. The other possibility is the anti-bridge push, which he supports, has very little to do with the environment at all.

— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.

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