If you live in or near Bend, and if you own a dog with which you like to walk or jog, you should be keenly interested in the Riley Ranch Nature Reserve. But not in a good way.
You’ll note that the 184-acre project, which the Bend Park & Recreation District expects to open in December, is not called a park. Its name, rather, suggests a greater commitment to preserving nature, to which end certain things are appropriate — hiking, running and fishing — and certain things are not. Specifically, bikes and dogs.
Riley Ranch will be one of the district’s largest parks and the first to go Fido-free. The proposal to ban dogs emerged from the deliberation of a citizens’ advisory committee assembled to help plan the park, says district Executive Director Don Horton. Science, he says, shows that the mere presence of dogs disrupts wildlife.
So, one might add, does the presence of people and, no doubt, the trail construction and site preparation that will allow them to wander throughout Riley Ranch. Yet the district, having spent millions of taxpayers’ dollars to encourage some forms of wildlife-disrupting recreation, has arbitrarily drawn the line at man’s best friend.
If you think this is really about the science, I have a 200-pound Chihuahua to sell you.
Why else might the district ban dogs? One reason is that some park users find dogs — and the irresponsibility of some dog owners — annoying. In fact, Horton says that some people have expressed enthusiastic support for the dog ban, complaining that they encounter dogs too frequently in other parks and would be grateful to have one without them. Meanwhile, he says, opposition to the ban has been limited.
In Riley Ranch Nature Reserve, the park district might be giving a large number of people exactly what they want. That possibility should make dog owners nervous.
Riley Ranch represents a significant investment of public dollars and of public land, yet its usefulness to taxpayers is, by design, limited. It will do nothing to reduce park use elsewhere by people who enjoy the company of their dogs — and who, by exercising them, are fulfilling their obligation as pet owners. It will do nothing to reduce the length and frequency of vehicle trips for dog owners who live closer to Riley Ranch than to, say, Shevlin. They’ll continue, needlessly, to exacerbate congestion on Bend’s streets.
And as for the solo runner or hiker who might feel vulnerable exercising in an out-of-the way location without the company of an 80-pound Labrador? Be afraid or go elsewhere. Riley Ranch is not for you.
Are Bend residents so fed up with dogs that they’re willing to use public resources this inefficiently simply to be free of them?
Horton considers the dog prohibition a one-off. “I don’t think this is a new direction for the district,” he said Wednesday. His assessment may well be accurate. Still, the ban sets an important precedent: It is now conceivable to create public parks in Bend in which a long-established use — dog walking — is prohibited.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time the district has banned a potentially annoying park use on the flimsiest of rationales. Several years ago, it banned the use of all tobacco products — even chewing tobacco — largely because district officials deemed such behavior inconsistent with its live-healthy mission. Now, dogs will be banned in order to allow wildlife to live more healthily. We’re not talking about a bastion of tolerance here.
Horton, again, could be right. Riley Ranch could be a one-off. But now that dog detractors have notched one victory, and now that the park district has given them a “scientific” argument for banning dogs, it would be naive to assume there won’t be demands for future parks to be designated “nature reserves” and managed accordingly.
For evidence that this can happen, look no further than the Portland metropolitan area, where the regional government Metro has in recent years acquired thousands of acres of land to be managed as regional parks and “natural areas.” Dogs are prohibited in all of them, except in rare circumstances. And Metro, like Bend’s park district, has a lengthy scientific justification for its ban (scholarly articles cited include “Free-ranging domestic dogs … as predators and prey in rural Zimbabwe: Threats of competition and disease to large wild carnivores” and “Diet of free-ranging cats and dogs in a suburban and rural environment, southeastern Brazil”).
The zealous intolerance to dog owners that applies in and around Portland may not overtake Bend. But anyone who believes it can’t because we’re somehow different in Central Oregon, well, give me a call. I want to talk to you about a Chihuahua.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.